Planet of the vapes
A guide to the Truckee Meadows’ vaping subculture
A lot has been written about e-cigarettes—or “vapes” as they’re known these days—since they first appeared on store shelves in the U.S. during the mid-2000s. A Google search for “e-cigarettes” comes back with nearly 16 million results, including abstracts for scientific studies, advertisements from sellers, blog posts by users, and newspaper and magazine articles. From the small, local daily papers to big, national publications like Rolling Stone—everyone’s had something to say or some question to pose about vaping at some point during the last 10 years. Common themes range from the potential health risks or benefits to predictions for future regulations on this currently largely unregulated industry. (It wasn’t until the 2015 legislative session that Nevada enacted a law via Senate Bill 225 to bar businesses from selling vaping devices and e-liquids to minors.)
Much remains to be seen about vaping, and there’s not a lot of consensus to be found among the public, or even the scientific community. And the media doesn’t help things with its proclivity toward hype and hyperbole, alternately proclaiming with breakneck speed the undeniable detriments or advantages of vaping. But in the meantime, the vaping industry continues to grow rapidly around nation and in the Truckee Meadows. Along with it, a vibrant subculture—unknown even to many vape users—is growing too.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that I’m one of those vape users who was unaware of emerging vape culture. (In a 2015 report, the CDC estimated that as of 2014 nearly four percent of U.S. adults regularly used vapes.)
I finally committed to switching to e-cigs a few years ago after nearly a decade of smoking. I tried them in the early days when short-lived versions that ostensibly looked and felt like the real deal (called cig-a-likes) still ruled the market and the first generation of “vape pens”—the long, cylindrical ones with tanks for the nicotine-laced liquid—sold for more than $100 dollars and leaked like a sieve. By the time I switched for good, the technology was in its second or third generation and had finally come far enough to provide me with a satisfying alternative to real cigarettes. Also, the price had come down significantly—in part, I suspect, because vape pens were already becoming old hat as more committed vape users began moving on to larger, more powerful, box-looking devices called “mods.”
Mods work in much the same way as vape pens—both rely on a battery to engage a cotton-wrapped coil that heats the e-liquid (usually made from propylene glycol, glycerin, water, nicotine, and flavoring) into an inhalable aerosol or mist. But mods are much more powerful and thus yield a larger cloud of vapor. And the vaping subculture revolves around mods.
I set out to visit local shops to get a better feel for that culture. To make my quest for knowledge a manageable task, I decided to visit only stores that specialize in vapes and skipped the ones that also sell cigarettes and other tobacco products. In all, I spent time at 15 vape shops, where I learned more about everything from industry standards for e-liquids and equipment to the importance of vape shop environments and events. (As a side note, I’ve little doubt I missed some stores and that new ones will have opened before the paper goes to press.)E-liquids
At Slushee’s Vapor Headquarters, 2005 Sierra Highlands Drive, owners and spouses Kenneth and Jacquelyn Webster were among the first to start selling their own line of e-liquid—which cognitive and brain sciences Ph.D. candidate Jacquelyn decided to learn how to make in late 2013 after meeting an e-cig vendor while in England for a school-related conference.
“He taught me all about it and told me everything, and he was very informative,” she said. “And I bought my first e-cigarette from him. … And when I got back to the states, I couldn’t find a juice [e-liquid] that didn’t have, like, additives or sucralose or ethyl alcohol or things that I knew—like artificial sweeteners—things that I didn’t want to be vaping. I couldn’t find a clean vape. So I researched it and figured out how to make it on my own. And then people started wanting it.”
In August 2014, the Websters turned it into a business, which has since expanded to include a wide variety of vaping hardware and e-liquids from other manufacturers. Webster explained that e-liquid manufacturing in the United States has grown rapidly over the last few years to meet the demand for USA-made products that satisfy vape users’ desire for what she calls a “clean vape.”
These days, it’s a point of pride among vape shops to offer only e-liquids made in the United States. On a visit to School of Vape, 580 E. Plumb Lane, I learned why from general manager, Nathan Evans.
“We only sell premium e-juice that’s made in an ISO-7 or higher lab,” Evans said. “We don’t sell anything that’s not made in the USA … and we do not sell any juice that contains diacetyl.”
ISO stands for International Organization for Standardization. It’s a non-governmental body comprised of people from 164 member countries who come together to develop voluntary standards for various industries, including manufacturing. An ISO rating for a lab is basically an accreditation level it receives based on technical competency and cleanliness.
The diacetyl to which Evans referred is an organic compound with a buttery flavor. It’s added to some foods and has been linked to “popcorn worker’s lung” or “flavorings-related lung disease.” It’s also present in small amounts in some sweeter, dessert-flavored e-liquids. According to Evans, it has become an increasingly serious concern for vape users over the last few years and, in response, a lot of e-liquid manufacturers are reformulated their products to omit the ingredient.
The fear of afflictions like popcorn lung and also growing popular demand from brand-loyal customers has led many local shops to follow in the Websters’ footsteps by creating house lines of e-liquid. In fact, the majority of the shops I visited offer an exclusive line—many with the option to create personalized flavors. All of the lines are advertised as “lab-made.” At Slushee’s, the Websters have started receiving their own brand of e-liquid, complete with slick new labels, from a lab in California.
One of the newest shops in town, Midtown Vape, 600 S. Virginia St., is predictably Midtown hip with clean, Spartan décor, high vaulted ceilings and a house line of e-liquid in long squeezable bottles featuring names like Hidden Dragon, Basic B and Wolf.
Over on the west end of town is another newcomer to the vape scene. Mathew Gibbs opened Lord Vapor, 9570 S. McCarran Blvd., in September 2015. In addition to Star Wars memorabilia, the shop offers custom vinyl stickers for mods and a house line of e-liquids with movie references built into the names, including a tobacco and bourbon flavor called He Shot First and a tobacco and menthol flavor called Force Choke.
“The way I’ve been running it is, I come up with flavors,” Gibbs said. “And while we’re in the process of designing labels for flavors that we think our customers are going to like, we actually manufacture some of those potential flavors [by commissioning it from the lab he uses], and we place them out here for our customers to kind of give us a baseline—if they like certain stuff or they want to change certain stuff—so we can kind of customize our juices to our customers’ specific profiles without having to do an individual juice for every individual person. And I do custom orders.”
Just up the street, 775 Vapes, 10310 N. McCarran Blvd., displays all of its e-liquid flavors on a bank of flat screen TVs behind the counter. In addition to the roughly 70 flavors of house e-liquid, customers can request their own flavor concoctions.Environment
When it comes to vape stores, the environment—from furnishings to art—is frequently as much a defining factor as the e-liquids and equipment offered. Some stores boast a loungy feel with couches and video game consoles. Others pride themselves on a clean, professional space. But perhaps the most distinctive stores are the ones that began as something entirely different and still bear the trappings of their initial purpose. Open Box Outlet, 219 Baring Blvd., is one of those.
Like several of the more established shops, Open Box Outlet, 219 Baring Blvd., has multiple storefronts, but the first was the Baring Boulevard location. Glenn Pitts opened the store in September 2012 with the intention of selling a little bit of everything. While the store still offers a random sampling of things, from skateboards to large area rugs, the main focus is on e-cigarettes, which Pitts started selling early in 2013.
“I think we went to a show in Vegas, and we decided to pick it up from there,” Pitts said. “And from there, it just exploded. When we started, there was only really two other stores—the little Computer Extreme store and Sierra Smoke.”
Open Box Outlet also carries some of the local e-liquid lines from other stores that Pitts helped get off the ground, including Slushee’s Vapor Headquarters and Lord Vapor.
Another of Pitt’s projects is Biggest Little Vape Shop, 1530 S. Stanford Way, of which he is co-owner. Unlike Open Box Outlet, the store was opened with vaping in mind and has design elements that fit with its location in the industrial neighborhood of Sparks.
“It’s a really clean looking shop,” Pitts said. “It was brand new. We were able to build it out, so we built it out exactly how we wanted it. … It was a shell of a place, and it just had dirt on the floor. We were able to design exactly what we wanted, exactly how we wanted it. We did a gloss floor instead of like carpeting and stuff.”
As with so many of the local vape shops, it’s arguable whether the highlight of the Reno Vapor Emporium, 2303 S. Virginia St., is the e-liquid lines carried there—including one the store touts as certified organic and kosher—or the environment the shop maintains. Reno Vapor Emporium is conspicuously vapor cloud-free, a circumstance that manager Molly Rosen explained is quite purposeful.
“We try not to have it all clouded up all the time—make it so that people wandering in off the street that maybe want to try vaping out aren’t intimidated,” she said. “Because sometimes vape culture is kind of like, ’Oh, no!’ It’s kind of scary, especially if you’re like, you know, grandma wants to start vaping. So we try to be inviting no matter who you are.”
Another standout in environment was The Vapory Reno, 1300 E. Plumb Lane, which is now closed, although its other location at 216 N. Arlington Ave. is still open. It had an island vibe thanks to its large wall murals, fish tank, and an e-liquid line from Honolulu, Hawaii called Aloha Vapor.
Canyon Vapes, 626 Victorian Ave., boasts a different type of wall embellishment that sets it apart. It's been signed by dozens of customers who’ve quit smoking cigarettes by using vapes.
“We’re more of a mom-and-pop shop rather than trying to get money and stuff like that,” said store manager Justin Neel. “We’re here to actually help people quit smoking. If we can help you quit smoking and quit these—that’s our goal, actually. Because we can always get somebody that smokes and help them get that off of it, too.”Equipment
In some respects, vaping equipment trumps all of the other elements of vape culture from e-liquids to vape store ambiance. It can be expensive, for one thing, with prices ranging from less than $20 up to several hundred. And advances in vape technology continually provide more durable and reliable hardware, and the regular influx of upgraded products helps drive the industry forward.
All of the local vape shops offer pretty much the same options for vape pens and mods, but some place particular importance on their equipment selection. Take, for example, Daisy Mae’s Vape Shop, 1115 Rock Blvd., where name brand products and knock offs are kept in separate cases, but both are regularly stocked in an effort to meet the needs of customers with different spending limits.
Another popular piece of vaping hardware that can be found in any store is the re-buildable dripping atomizer (RDA) often preferred by vape users with mods. RDAs allow users to build custom coils to heat the e-liquid they’re using, and several shops specialize in custom coil building. Among them is Knuckle Dusters Vape Shop, 1100 E. Plumb Lane, where co-owner Richard Price keeps a work bench complete with ohm meter and power drill for custom jobs.
Many of the local shops offer custom built coils, but that’s not the case at Black Rock Vapor, 664 E. Prater Way. “We don’t do builds here,” said co-owner Kimi Lafinier. “We don’t want the liability and the problems that go with that, but we sell everything to build for yourself.”
It’s a justifiable concern considering that mistakes made by the person who builds the coils or the person who uses them can unintentionally introduce faults into the system that can pose serious safety risks. Still, the potential for larger vapor clouds and increased flavor purity create a large demand for custom coils, and many local shops pride themselves on safe building practices.Events
An aspect of vape culture that goes hand in hand with top-of-the-line equipment and customization is vape shop events. These are draws for users who embrace vaping as a hobby, not just a tobacco alternative. The most common type of event is the cloud competition, or just cloud comp—a contest for mod users to see who can blow the largest cloud of vapor.
Cloud comps are a big deal in the vaping community. And with the potential for expensive prizes, they’re more than just a meet-and-greet opportunity. On April 3, Nevada Vapor, 770 S. Meadows Parkway, held a coil art and cloud competition during which the store gave away full-sized bottles of e-liquids and a variety of vaping equipment and other swag to participants.
“Has anyone not gotten something yet?” co-owner Natasha Supancheck asked at the conclusion of the event, moving around the room to offer spectators their choice of e-liquid bottles from a small box.
Cloud competitions and product giveaways are not just a local phenomenon either. The World Series of Cloud Chasing—billed as the world’s largest cloud competition—is being held in the UK this year. According the website, there’s a “prize pool in excess of $100,000.”
At The Vapor Stop, 1200 Rock Blvd., co-owners and husband-wife-team Jason and Becky Cowles are preparing for Becky’s departure to compete in the WSOCC in August. By then, she will have graduated with her degree in nursing and The Vapor Stop will have moved to its new location at 2161 Pyramid Way. Becky is excited to go but makes one thing clear—the appeal is in more than the promise of prizes. She also appreciates the sense of camaraderie members of the vaping community get from events.
“People you’d never even talk to, now you’re friends,” she said.