"Hello, thank you for vaping," the man working the door says as I walk into Play, the purple-and-red-lit lounge attached to Manhattan’s Museum of Sex, at around 9PM on Monday night.
Inside, a diverse crowd of punks, 9-to-5-types, white hairs, 20-somethings, Army veterans, and artists puffed on nicotine vaporizers, the all-metallic devices that look like part of a vacuum cleaner, and "cigalikes," the smaller, cheaper sticks that look like cigarettes and probably have glowing tips. The smell of caramelized banana, Apple Jacks, and melon mixed in the air.
The event was a bitter celebration. At midnight, New York City’s ban on e-cigs in public places like bars, restaurants, and parks was set to take effect. The attendees were there to vape in defiance at 12:01AM.
"This is the beginning. This is where this fight takes off."
"This is the beginning. This is where this fight takes off," says Jenee Fowler, a thin woman with multicolored hair also known as Vape Girl on YouTube. Fowler’s boyfriend Russ Wishtart, a vaping advocate who hosts a libertarian-themed podcast, recently joined a smoker’s rights group in a lawsuit against New York City over the vaping ban.
Fowler is a former smoker, like many of tonight’s attendees. She quit after she started using an electronic inhaler that vaporizes a nicotine solution in order to simulate the effects of smoking. Like many of tonight’s attendees, she feels the e-cig ban is counterproductive.
"We were forced to be smokers because we were addicted," she says, taking a hit of something called "freckle-faced dragonberry." "Now we finally have our lives back."
Would she be observing the new rules that ban vaping in restaurants, bars, schools, within 15 feet of a hospital door, "public arenas where bingo is played," and so on?
No, she says. "I am going to vape everywhere."
The Food and Drug Administration still has not ruled on whether e-cigs will be regulated as tobacco products or anti-smoking aids, even though they’re rapidly gaining popularity and major tobacco companies have started investing in them. A representative from RJ Reynolds, which makes a cigalike called VUSE, was milling around the event. "Vaping should be allowed where cigarettes are banned," he tells The Verge. "Except schools, childcare... youths should never have access."
"I am going to vape everywhere."
E-cig sales doubled from 2012 to 2013 according to some estimates, and vaporizer shops and vaping lounges have started popping up in New York City and elsewhere. Meanwhile, scary headlines about exploding vaporizers and e-cig liquid poisoning are proliferating.
The research on the health effects of vaping is still spotty and inconclusive, but the vaping crew is convinced that what they’re putting in their bodies is healthier, at least, than the "cancer sticks" they were smoking before.
"Is this organic?" one gentleman in a scarf and beige trilby asked at the vendor table for Henley Vaporium. It wasn’t, but he was assured that there were organic options for sale in the Soho store. "I get my juice in Paris," he said.
That was Ladell McLin, a musician who quit smoking six months ago with the use of a vaporizer. He came to the vape-in to feel support from fellow vapers. "I felt alienated," he says, noting that the habit is not always welcome in bars and sometimes the police will mistake vaporizers for something illegal. Then: "It smells like weed."
It did. It was around 10:15PM, just shy of two hours until the ban kicked in, but someone in the crowd was already law-breaking. Marijuana wasn’t the only thing being smoked; outdoors a few iconoclasts were smoking real cigarettes. One was Audrey Silk, founder of Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment (CLASH), the group that joined vapers to sue over the ban. Her companion, a Brooklyn smoker named Steve, was salty. "This vape smoke is killing me!" he said.
"I may have to vape in the street, like an animal."
Chris Calnek and Alison Craven, a couple enjoying a drink and a vape, had showed up to the event because "it’s one of the last days vaping was allowed indoors" (him) and "I had heard it was a good party" (her). "Ultimately, like Prohibition, this will be repealed," says Calnek, who smoked for 22 years before he started vaping. Until then, "I may have to vape in the street, like an animal."
At five minutes to midnight, Matt Welch, editor-in-chief of Reason, the libertarian magazine that was hosting the event, rallied the crowd. "Has anyone vaped any soon-to-be-illegal substances tonight?" he asked, before introducing Vice founder and perennial provocateur Gavin McInnes.
McInnes was wearing the "College" shirt from the movie Animal House, which he said he had just watched. "We don’t care if de Blasio puts us on double secret probation," he said. "We are going to release water vapors into the sky, because that doesn’t hurt anybody."
"Five, four, three, two, one," the crowd counted down. "I’m breaking the law!" one man yelled, holding his e-cig in the air. "We’re all breaking the law!" someone else yelled.
The police never came.