Not Catching Fire
How vaping became the pastime of terrorists, futuristic bounty hunters, and everyone, everywhere
By Liesl Schillinger
Illustration by Keetra Dean Dixon
Leonardo DiCaprio and Julia Louis-Dreyfus did it at the Golden Globes; Lily Allen had her dancers do it in a music video; Barry Manilow does it at the piano; Stephen Dorff does it in Peru. What is it they’re doing? They’re vaping—an activity that, depending on which sort of e-cig is used, makes the smoker (puffer? vaper?) look either like an ordinary smoker or like a “futuristic bounty hunter in the midst of a covert time-stream-altering mission of critical importance.”
But not everyone is laughing. Last week, the faddish pastime of e-smoking was dignified by the Oxford Dictionaries when lexicographers declared the verb vape to be the Word of the Year for 2014. The word “vaping” came to light in 1983, invented by a visionary science writer named Rob Stepney, who had dreamed up the “non-combustible” nicotine delivery system of the future. The word smoldered quietly for a few decades until catching fire in 2009, along with the non-combustible nicotine sticks themselves. This year, vape beat out noun rivals like budtender (“a person whose job is to serve customers in a cannabis dispensary or shop”) and slacktivism (“actions performed via the Internet in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement”) to take top honors.
E-cigarettes have become a multi-billion-dollar global business; millions of people have started using them, but the jury is still out about how safe it is to vape. Last December, the New York City Council passed a “no vaping” law, outlawing the use of electronic cigarettes in places where smoking is prohibited, because they “look too much like regular cigarettes,” according to Forbes. This summer, the World Health Organization seconded that decision, calling for “bans on indoor use, advertising and sales to minors,” and earlier in the year, an opinion piece in the Washington Post deplored the spread of the trend, warning that “big tobacco” was “sharply raising spending on advertisements” to make vaping look glamorous and hook a new generation on nicotine. The author singled out one commercial whose audacity made him “gasp”: a TV ad for the brand Blu, which showed Stephen Dorff, bare-chested and tattooed, backgrounded by New York skyscrapers, Andean mountains, and an elegiac musical score. With a blue-tipped silicone cigarette glinting from his lips, and a faraway look in his eyes, Dorff solemnly proclaimed the pleasures of vaping. “For us smokers, times have changed,” he said. “But a few things remain the same. Our desire to explore. To adventure. To roam without boundaries.”
Only days before the dictionary named its winner, Flavien Moreau, a dedicated French vaper (vapoteur, they would call it — the French version of the verb is vapoter), discovered the perils of roaming too adventurously with his cigarette électronique when a French court sentenced him to seven years in prison. Late in 2012, Moreau, a felonious malcontent who had recently converted to Islam, traveled to Syria to join a group of armed militants. Once there, he discovered to his horreur that his terrorist comrades did not permit smoking. Jonesing badly, he tried to assuage his cravings with nicotine gum, but after 10 days, deciding that Nicorette “wasn’t enough,” he returned to France to pick up some e-smokes before returning to the fray. He was apprehended in Turkey in 2013, trying to cross the border back into al-Sham. “I really struggled with not smoking,” Moreau told reporters. “So, I left my gun with my emir and I left.”
In an age when even terrorists look down on smokers, a person could be excused for feeling nostalgic for the days when ordinary citizens smoked actual cigarettes without being scowled at as if they were hardened criminals. In Russia, where 40 percent of the population still smokes (compared with 27 percent in the United States, and 30 percent in France), an ambitious smoking prohibition went into effect in June, barring smoking in building entryways, offices, and most public spaces. The ruling will severely test Russian willpower, as their cultural attachment to smoking is ingrained not only in habits but in speech. Two cunning, short, time-saving verb phrases have evolved in the Russian language — differing only by one syllable — that facilitate social smoking. They mean, depending on the prefix, “Do you have a cigarette you could spare?” or “Gotta light?” Respectively, those phrases are: Est’ zakurit’? (Есть закурить?) and Est’ prikurit? (Есть прикурить?)
It is poignant (though of course salutary) to contemplate a smokeless, healthy Russia in which those familiar ice-breaking words would no longer form part of the sociable glossary that’s deployed at every vecherinka. Luckily, there is no need to consign these flavorful phrases to the ashes. Russians are vaping these days, just like everybody else (a British firm tactlessly boasted that its Vapesticks “invaded” Russia and Ukraine last March, but Russian companies had deployed their own units long before then). Unlike the rest of us, however, Russians are not afraid to call vaping “smoking.” Some modish people go to the trouble to use the vape-specific verb zatyanut’sya (Затянуться). But most can’t be bothered; whether it’s fire, or water, they’re smoking it. Old habits die hard.