7 Things We Learned at the Vaping Expo in Downtown Phoenix

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire – unless you’re talking about vaping, which produces no smoke, no flame, and only a subtle aroma. The industry for electronic cigarettes is so new, it’s hard to believe that vendors are already hosting an expo. But here it is: Vaping experts from across the country flocked to the Phoenix Convention Center this past weekend for Vapor Dynasty 2015.

Vaping attracts a diverse bunch of people, from middle-aged professionals who have finally quit smoking to 21-year-olds soaked in tattoos. The one thing they had in common was their love of blowing out gray vapor. The most popular devices are big and cylindrical, but they take all forms: Some look like shisha handles, others like perfume bottles, and still others like gel pens. People can draw on an electronic cigarette until the battery dies or the liquid runs out.

We spent an afternoon at the expo and learned a few things about this rapidly evolving new culture. 

Vaping is amazingly popular
It wasn’t long ago that the “electronic cigarette” looked like a made-up fad from a bad science fiction film. For diehard smokers, the “e-cig” seemed too cold and clinical to satisfy that primal yearning for fire and ash. But in a few short years, vaping has turned the tobacco industry on its side. Saturday drew hundreds of vape enthusiasts, who lined up around the block to pay the $10 admission. Since most vaping is odorless or sweet-smelling, it’s far less offensive to non-smokers. Plumes of vapor erupted from the crowd as they waited to enter the conference center.

Vaping is a Cottage Industry
Not everyone can build an atomizer, so it’s no wonder that big companies like Marlboro and Blu dominate this buzzing new industry. But vaping shops are popping up everywhere, as are the makers of liquid and paraphernalia. The range of products and styles is astonishing. Danny Osment came from Tennessee to show off his wares from the Appalachian-themed Vapor Apothecary. Set up with a repurposed wooden counter and old-timey bottles of “elixirs,” Osment’s display exemplifies the pioneering spirit of vaping culture.

Vaping Culture is Surprisingly Creative
There’s not much to vaping, since the act itself is pretty much just inhaling and exhaling. But the marketing of vaping products is a playground for creative names and branding. Also, body puppets.

Vaping Has an Outlaw Quality, Even Though It’s Legal
No doctor on earth recommends vaping as a healthy habit, and the scientific community is in a stalemate. Decades might pass before researchers determine the long-term effects of vaping. Supporters believe that vaping is way less awful than traditional tobacco products, and the industry is almost completely unregulated. Still, some communities are terrified of it, especially in anti-smoking capitals like California. “We’re already kind of a pariah,” says Eric Becker, owner of Mad Scientist Vapor in Orange County, California. Becker sells vaping supplies out of his truck, and he says business is going well. True to its campy name, the vehicle has even inspired a forthcoming comic book. But Becker can’t just roll into family-friendly venues like farmers’ markets and food truck clusters. “This is the only store of its kind in the country,” says Becker. “We make arrangements with the owners of parking lots, usually outside other vaping stores.”

Vaping is Still Kind of a Club
Vaping lounges have opened up in every major city, and you can find products pretty much everywhere now, including your local Walgreens. But serious vaping fans are still a breed apart. They collect and trade liquids, research favorite flavors, and puff away for hours at a time. Vaping is more like cigars and hookahs than cigarettes; two vaping experts can compare favorite devices and “juices” all day long.

Many Vaping Fans are Health Conscious (Sort Of)
You hear the same story over and over again: I was smoking two packs a day. I was totally addicted. Then I started vaping, and I feel so much better. I smell better. I haven’t smoked in six months. I even started running. Whatever the medical community decides about its health effects, vaping has torn a massive chunk out of the cigarette industry, and you don’t hear a lot of coughing and hacking among the vapers. One man stood at the expo’s entrance and handed out cards for “organic” liquids. A local company, The Bradley’s Brand, makes not only vape juice but also lip balm and mustache oil. Many products are made from hemp, among other materials.

It Does Get Foggy
So much exhalation in one enclosed space did fog up the atmosphere, and by 1 p.m. it was difficult to see the other side of the room. The larger devices produce a lot of vapor, and the clouds mingled in the air. The aerosol in vaping devices is often compared to commercial smoke machines, so frequent concertgoers might have felt right at home. The haze intensified through the afternoon. But no lighters were flicked, nor did anyone need an ashtray.