For Stephanie Rafanelli e-cigarettes were an electric lightbulb moment in the struggle to give up tobacco.
It all started quite early on. My first words, uttered with a not-so-cherubic look on my face and a strange baby puffing sound, were: “Light! Light!” It was as if I had come out of the birth canal sucking not on my thumb, but a mini-Marlboro. Much excitement and hand-flapping ensued whenever my grandfather fired up his pipe after Sunday lunch. Family legend has it that my parents wafted my dummy through clouds of smoke just to shut me up, such was my morbid nappy-stage fascination. Age was no barrier: everyone loved smoking in the 70s.
I smoked my first adult-sized fag at the age of 10: a John Player Superking purloined from my best friend’s dad while he was innocently buying us Funny Feet. We lit up in her den at the bottom of their garden while watching Superman kick Nick O’Teen’s butt on TV. Only three years passed before I was sourcing my own packs direct from Syd, the local newsagent. In the girls’ changing rooms at school, we chuffed up the sanitary towel incinerators. They never sussed that the acrid smoke bellowing out of the chimney came from the mouths of their year-three angels.
By 20, I had cultivated a 30-a-day habit and often went clubbing with a pack of B&H and my asthma inhaler in the same back pocket, both ending up, on more than one occasion, at the bottom of a Hacienda toilet. I knew I had a problem when I started waking up to “get a few in” in the middle of the night. Given this, it was necessary to date mainly serious smokers. One nicotine-free boyfriend issued me with an ultimatum to quit: “I love you and I just want to know that you won’t die after we get married.” Needless to say, I dumped him.
Then in my 30s, the fear began to strike. This, sadly, had less to do with the inadvisable combo of asthma and hefty chaining than a terror of ending up with a pout like Pat Butcher’s. And so I ceremonially smoked my last official cigarette – a total of seven times – with a variety of help methods, from multiple patches and compulsive tangerine-eating to Trainspotting-style cold turkeys. But the evil weed always tempted me back. The thing is, when I didn’t smoke I always felt like a limb was missing. I conducted conversations with that little baton in my hand; the sharp sucking in, the delayed exhale for emphasis. It had become part of my physical lingo. Without it, I was somehow neutered.
Then, in 2010, came the electric light bulb moment – quite literally. On a trip to New York, I was given an early version of the e-cigarette. My new contraption simulated smoking, I learned, through a battery which heated and vaporised liquid nicotine in water and propylene glycol. It was a giant, white plastic stick, akin to a supersize tampon designed by Zaha Hadid, with a light at the tip that flashed fluorescent blue with each drag, like a silent police siren. I smoked it on the plane all the way back to London, hiding the gaudy light show under a blanket. I was cured in that seven-hour journey.
Around 1.3 million Britons now use e-cigarettes. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters Well, not exactly cured; it was more of a switching of allegiance. The e-cig worked because it replicated the smoking action that was so deeply entrenched in my psyche. Okay, it was a little like respiring talcum powder at first, but somehow it felt cleaner to puff on the fragrant stuff they use to dust babies’ bottoms. The sensation was the same: the all-important inhale/exhale accompanied by a nicotine hit without the killer chemicals, tar and carbon monoxide. My nighttime wheeze subsided, my hair smelt permanently salon-fresh, and I was, apparently, much nicer to kiss in the mornings. I “vaped” on the tube, blew vapour rings in the lift at work, puffed for inspiration at my keyboard, e-smoked in the kids’ playground without apology. All perfectly legal. And, joy of joys, I spent evenings sipping pinot noir laughing at the suckers huddled (drink-free) on the pavement powering through their Marlboros in just three drags.There was, of course, a price to pay. In London, I was the only vaper in my village and, at first, I looked like a total freak. Sucking on a stage prop lightsaber in public annihilated any semblance of Left Bank chic. I soon realised this was to be the death knell of my love life: it’s hard to be seductive on a date with the smoking equivalent of a dildo in one’s hand. Nor did I feel anything other than ludicrous when hunting for a plug socket in the pub in which to recharge.”Ce n’est pas cool,” French actor Marion Cotillard informed me with a solemn head shake at a party, having asked me for a sample puff – as if I really needed telling. My sybaritic friends complained that I’d been “sanitised” (“decaf, e-fag …” they moaned). Still, not dying of lung cancer seemed like a major plus.
It was not until a work trip to LA that I encountered other e-heads. When I met two Hollywood agents puffing away over scrambled egg whites at 9am at the Beverly Hill Four Seasons, it emerged that I wasn’t smoking a very up-to-date model. My prosthetic fag was, apparently, more fax machine than instant messaging. “Oh my god. It’s like a felt-tip pen!” cried one of them hysterically. She swept in to rescue my dignity, emailing the PR of a slimline American brand. Two crates were Fedexed to my hotel the next morning – and from then on, I started getting the hang of things.
Back in London, my trusty e-cig became the object of increasing curiosity. “How’s that working for you?” I heard, and still do, at least 10 times a day. (NB: vaping is a very sociable pastime.) Even die-hard smokers, who mocked me mercilessly, ended up begging for a drag at the end of a night out. The ridiculous has a habit of becoming cool if you hang out there looking like a loser with conviction for long enough.
Since then I have been joined by around 1.3 million Britons. I no longer need to bash down the door of my only Soho supplier at 2am: e-cigs are now stocked in Tesco and Sainsbury’s. There are choices for every smokers’ palate, level of addiction and aesthetic eye. For those who like verisimilitude in their faux fags there are disposables – the hefty but effective Ten Motives or the petite, feminine NJOY – and rechargeable kits complete with USB chargers and cartridges from the likes of E-Lites, Halo and Skycig.
Vaping has now become a dedicated art form. Last year, two shops opened in London – V-Revolution and Smoke No Smoke – for connoisseurs in search of vaping nirvana. The outré can satisfy both smoking and sci-fi fantasies with e-cigs that resemble a range of airborne vessels from Battlestar Galactica to stealth bombers. You can pimp your kit to match your mobile phone or match your e-liquid to your mood: Golden Virginia flavour for a country pub, mojito for a bender. There is even an option for granddads (it’s never too late): a Sherlock Holmes-style calabash e-pipe.
Users can satisfy both smoking and sci-fi fantasies with e-cigs that resemble a range of airborne vessels from Battlestar Galactica to stealth bombers. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images The tobacco industry, which has historically shown great aptitude for saving its own skin, is already cashing in on this ballooning market. It is estimated that sales of e-cigarettes in the UK will be worth £339m by 2015. British American Tobacco’s own brand, Vype, is due to generate 40% of the company’s profits within two years, and some analysts predict e-cigarette sales will overtake the £428bn-a-year traditional cigarette market in 10 years.In the UK, 20% of people still smoke; smoking-related illness kills around 114,000 Britons and 700,000 Europeans each year (the cost of which is £20.6bn annually in the EU). There is still no official scientific evidence that e-cigs are an effective way of stopping people smoking traditional cigarettes. But this week, Sarah Wollaston, a GP and Conservative MP for Totnes, challenged public health officials’ advice that people trying to stop smoking should stick to patches and gum, instead of e-cigarettes. “I think they are a very important addition to the armoury; we have patches and nicotine tablets but they don’t suit everybody. If there is a product out there that for some people is going to be better for them, I don’t think we should turn our backs on that,” she said.Anecdotally, vaping is particularly effective in preventing “slide back”: lifelong smokers need not be faced with the depressing thought that they will never puff again. In my own personal focus group, I have converted many other last-chance-salooners, those undeterred by heinous prices, grisly images and unsubtle death threats emblazoned daily on their fag packets. My greatest triumph is an 80-year-old Italian with a chronic filterless Gauloises habit stretching back to the second world war.
Put simply: smokers are hardcore addicts; vaping may help them, not least with recurring feelings of failure. Surveys consistently find that 75% of smokers want to give up, but, currently only 7% succeed unaided. The British Medical Association (BMA) remains cautious. Spokesman Dr Ram Moorthy says: “The BMA believes that further research is needed into the long-term effects of e-cigarettes, and robust evidence is required to prove how effective they are as smoking cessation aids. Studies have shown there are worrying fluctuations in the levels of nicotine they provide users with, which is why further research and better regulation are essential.”
From 2016 e-cigarettes will be classed as medicines by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which means they will undergo rigorous tests. Though many scientists maintain that nicotine itself is not harmful, the risks of inhaling it are still not fully known. There are also teething problems: the e-cig’s lack of an off-button. Puffing, anytime, anyplace, anywhere, means nicotine intake can spiral up to 50-a-day levels. The good news is that it is easy to control the dose using ever-decreasing strengths of e-liquids and cartridges without ever having to summon up the willpower to curtail the soothing, puffing action. I am now at 0% – clean, nicotine-free. I vape as an insurance policy against relapse, and just for the goddamn hell of it.
I admit that none of this is very rock’n’roll (surely e-cigs are way too good-girl to ever really catch on with the kids?), but – you know what – I kind of like it. Life is so much better without ashtrays and fag butts.