Second chances at happiness do not come along every day. But for this former cigarette slave, who once enjoyed every single moment of breathing in a cool, mentholated hit of tobacco — particularly that first smoke of the morning, shared with a hot cup of coffee — a second chance has come in the guise of an odd, mini-hookah-like machine called a “vaporizer.”
I am not referring to that Vick’s steam-producing vaporizer that your mom used to place by your bed when you were sick. Rather, I’m talking about a new sort of machine — one made up of a battery, an “atomizer,” a small plastic or glass container, and a flavored or unflavored liquid that, when heated by the push of a button, delivers a hit of nicotine-filled vapor directly to the lungs and a feeling that I thought I would never again experience.
How did I discover the joys of vaping? Like so many who have turned to a vaporizer in order to “smoke” without encountering those nasty, cancer-causing tars hiding inside the tobacco leaf, I began with a rite of passage known to reformed smokers everywhere: the life-challenging, mood-altering, pleasure-killing, and stress-generating act of tossing a perfectly good carton of cigarettes into the trash.
In my case, the willingness to throw away a couple of unopened boxes of smokes was the result of, and conclusion to, a three-pack-a-day habit that had taken root when I was just 15 years old. Over the next 20 years, my daily puffing would take its toll, leaving me to realize at 35 that I no longer possessed the lung capacity to support even the most modest physical exertion. The cigarettes would have to go.
But the nicotine?
Fortunately for me, the advent of nicotine gum, free of the cancer-causing agents in cigarettes (most researchers agree that nicotine is not, in and of itself, a carcinogen), provided an alternative means of getting nicotine into my system. While I was now denied the burst of satisfaction that I used to have when tobacco smoke filled my lungs, at least I could console myself by reaching for a piece of gum that would assuage my nicotine cravings while giving my mouth an activity to fill the gap created by the missing cigarette.
Yes, I know that nicotine gum is marketed as a short-term remedy to help those who wish to quit nicotine once and for all. However, ask any of your friends who chew the gum how long they have been doing so and I think you might be surprised. Many ex-smokers who have decided to give up the evil tars that come with nicotine delivery via cigarette have merely replaced their cigarette habit with the more benign delivery system of chewing nicotine gum.
For me, the “short-term” remedy has lasted more than 20 years, even though I find nothing particularly satisfying about the experience of chewing the gum, beyond its quelling my desire for nicotine and giving my mouth something to do. What’s more, I am keenly aware (and if I forget, my wife is quick to remind me) that nobody likes to be forced to stare at people intensely flapping their gums up and down on the substance inside their mouths. And it’s rather foul-tasting.
Even 20 years after my last cigarette, I remain convinced that, on getting the news that the world will end in six months, my first reaction will be to purchase a pack of smokes. So it is not surprising that when I first heard about a few head shops here and there marketing an electronic cigarette, it got my attention, though I wasn’t yet ready. The rumors surrounding the new device — such as claims that e-cigs made in China were laced with unidentified toxins — scared me away.
Still, the idea of being able to enjoy the feeling of smoking without the dangers that were rolled into a cigarette captured my imagination. It gave me hope that, some day, the technology would advance to the point where I could enjoy breathing faux smoke into my lungs without all the evils that are part and parcel of the cigarette experience.
That dream was realized about a year ago when I stepped into the one place where chewing on a piece of nicotine gum was not going to cut it — a radio studio. Let’s face it — nobody is going to stay tuned to a show where one of the talking heads is filling the space between words with the horrible sound of chomping chewing gum.
#page#And unlike the hapless person trapped in a face-to-face conversation with a gum smacker, the radio audience will express their aural displeasure by simply tuning out and going somewhere else, a result unlikely to endear the gum-chewer to the radio host who was good enough to invite the guest onto his or her program in the first place.
Gum chewing becomes even more undesirable when one graduates from the status of radio talk-show guest to that of radio talk-show host. Then one talks for three hours with little opportunity for a Nicorette break. Imagine, then, my wonderment when I walked into a radio studio one night — for a guest appearance on The David Webb Show — only to find David’s producer taking drags on a weird, Rube Goldberg–like contraption that appeared to be producing smoke.
My curiosity was piqued. The producer explained that the liquid held in the contraption contained primarily glycerol and nicotine — with an added fruity or sweet flavor, if that was one’s preference, or a substance tasting simply of tobacco, if a more realistic experience was desired — and was being heated by a battery, producing a vapor consisting of the glycerol and nicotine. The strength and taste of the liquid (labeling explains what is contained in the mix) is chosen and poured by the user, removing my worry that unregulated manufacturers of e-cigarettes added something toxic to the juice.
I’m not too swift when it comes to understanding machinery, and so I only partially grasped the concept of what was happening within the vaporizer to make the smoke-like substance. The producer invited me to give it a try, and I inhaled the vapor through the mouthpiece. Instantly, I no longer cared how the device worked. I only knew that the feeling in my lungs and the pleasure I had known and had missed for so many, many years had returned.
The reaction was, indeed, instantaneous. I was now a “vaper,” and I could not have been more pleased at having become one. Also instantly, various entities of government were reaching the conclusion that they were far less happy about my enjoyment than I. Before long, the City of New York decided to protect the public, whether it needed protection or not, by banning the use of all nicotine-vaporizing machines wherever cigarettes are banned, which includes most public indoor spaces. This was a decision that, I freely admit, provoked my inner libertarian, as from time to time I choose to ignore that particular city rule as an undue incursion on my rights.
Suddenly, a dialogue grew up around me. Would the substance being inhaled by those who enjoy vaping actually turn out to be more dangerous than it first appeared? Would vapor prove to be a gateway drug for kids, who would move on to tobacco cigarettes? Frankly, I don’t know the answers, although I can’t help but imagine that the dialogue will come to a crashing halt if the government is permitted to tax vaping products as it taxes cigarettes and cigars.
What I do know is that I have rediscovered a joy that I have missed for nearly a quarter century. Once again, I know the feeling of taking a drag on a tobacco-tasting substance that fills my lungs as I sip my morning coffee. I savor the relaxation that the process of vaping produces when I need to simply calm my mind. Also, the occasional cigar I have enjoyed since quitting cigarettes has become rarer. I just don’t seem to desire the true tobacco experience any longer.
Time will tell whether my joining the vaper ranks has harmed my health. And while I would certainly not recommend that those who have never acquired a nicotine addiction pick up a vaporizer, I find myself incapable of believing that current tobacco smokers do not have a great deal to benefit from in substituting vapor for smoke.
I think I’ll now go and contemplate those benefits over a few hits of menthol-tobacco-flavored vapor accompanied by a caffè latte. Life is good.
– Mr. Ungar is the co-host of Steele & Ungar on Sirius XM Radio, a frequent political analyst on Fox News, and a senior political contributor at Forbes.com.