Cloud-chasing with Singapore’s blooming community of vapers

Take a gander at 2014’s word of the year. Selfie? Normcore? Twerk? Close, but they don’t hold a candle to Oxford Dictionaries’ lexicon winner — the word ‘vape’

Let’s look deeper into its context in modern usage.

If you vape, that means that you’re a vaper. And if you’re a vaper, you may or may not be part of the exponentially growing modern movement called the #VapeLife.  

To say that vaping is a modern phenomenon would be semi-correct — electronic cigarettes have been around for more than a decade as an alternative to smoking traditional cigarettes. But it was only in recent years that vaping took over mainstream consciousness, with the popularity of e-cigarettes/personal vaporisers exceeding those of traditional cigarettes in the United States in 2013. In fact, its swarming prevalence in the hearts and minds of the young worldwide ignited fears among national health agencies, including ours. Their reaction to this new hi-tech device? Ban it, and ban it all to hell despite not fully understanding its effects. 

What’s that? Even you don’t really know what vaping is? Here’s how it works. E-cigarettes (also known as personal vaporisers, among other names) are handheld, battery-powered handheld devices that deliver nicotine by inhalation of vapor, with no tobacco involved. Pressing a button on the vaping device heats up a coil that evaporates the liquid solution (e-liquids) — which comes in many flavours, and sometimes without nicotine at all. The ‘smoke’ that users exhale are just water vapor, with none of the traditional cigarette’s lingering smell or toxins. 

Still confused? Plebs, here’s a video that should explain everything. 

Just how dangerous are these newfangled devices? 

The thing is, nobody knows for sure. Hundreds of studies have been carried out, and nothing conclusive has come out of it. Some claim that they’re harmful and do pose danger, while others insist that the level of toxicants involved in vaping have been little to none. 

Last month, however, a major breakthrough in vaping studies was released — Public Health England announced that e-cigarettes are safer than smoking.

No, this study wasn’t sponsored by corporations — it was a legitimate, empirical study endorsed by the government of the United Kingdom. In fact, the UK equivalent of Singapore’s Health Promotion Board declared that e-cigarettes are about ’95 percent less harmful than tobacco cigarettes’. Bloody hell mate, that’s smashing news.

But that’s not to say that vapers are entirely free from dangers. Public Health England stated that vaping devices should only be used as a means to help smokers quit, and by no means should be taken up by existing non-smokers. 

Photo: Vaping360

‘I want to see these products coming to the market as licensed medicines,’ says the UK government’s chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies. ‘This would provide assurance on the safety, quality and efficacy to consumers who want to use these products as quitting aids, especially in relation to the flavourings used, which is where we know least about any inhalation risks.’

Despite mounting studies pointing towards the relative safety of vaping as compared to smoking cigarettes, isn’t it a strange fact to know that the former will be outrightly banned while the latter is very much legal and still killing thousands as we speak?

The Ministry of Health (MOH) are pretty adamant in making sure that smokers stick to only the traditional method of vice; they’ll be slamming down the ban hammer on emerging tobacco products such as smokeless cigarettes, nicotine patches and e-cigarettes starting on Dec 15. Though if they’re having such a boner for public health, it’s puzzling why they didn’t implement a total ban on smoking in the first place?

The degree of legality

The current legislation in Singapore is this — you’re not allowed to import, distribute, sell or offer for sale any product that imitates cigarettes, and that includes all forms of vaping devices. It is, however, technically not illegal to own an e-cigarette, if they’re purchased locally. Talk among veteran vapers is that you’ll still get into trouble though if you’re caught in possession of one, with a $500 fine if you’re caught publicly vaping. 

As Dec 15 marches closer, there’s been an upsurge of activities concerning the crackdown on vaporisers and those who sell them here, but the vaping community in Singapore is ever growing by the minute. The media have reported it, though no official figures are available (obviously). Local websites selling vaping devices are still up and running the last time I checked, and the upcoming ban will only encourage sellers to go deeper underground. But they’ll still exist nonetheless, because demand is always growing. 

Photo: ICA newsroom

Even faced with the major study by Public Health England as well as multiple British tobacco policy experts insisting that a blanket ban on vaping devices is the wrong move, the government agency remains stubborn in their stance that they should be illegal. 

‘We remain concerned that e-cigarettes could attract and harm a large number of new users (who may not necessarily be current smokers), get them addicted to nicotine, and hence potentially serve as a gateway to developing a smoking habit, particularly among our young,’ an MOH spokesman replied to The New Paper’s queries. 

The tinkering engineer

‘FUCK THE GOVERNMENT LAH,’ bellows Rahul as he takes a particularly angry inhale of his vape before blowing thick clouds towards the ceiling. 

I was sitting across the middle-aged #vapelife devotee on a ragged two-seater couch in his flat in Bukit Panjang. His wife was out at work while his two daughters were in primary school. During my month-long infiltration into the deep underground of Singapore’s vaping community, Rahul invited me into his house to check out what he called his ‘secret science lab’ — which is just an exaggerate way of saying he’s turned a tiny spare room into a vaping den. This only happened only after a few rounds of meet-ups to ensure I was not an undercover cop or worse, a snitch. 

Photo: Vaping360

In that small nook of a room that also doubled as his study, the engineering consultant recounted his journey from a pack-a-day smoker to a staunch disciple of the #vapelife. In 2013, he finally decided to quit his smoking habit after years of being pestered by his wife and his mother-in-law, but he found cold turkey difficult and soon fell back into old habit. ‘I was a stubborn fucker lah; everytime I become stress, I light up one stick,’ he laughed. 

It was a job in Johor later that year that exposed him to the world of vaping. Seeing his younger colleagues in Malaysia sucking on mysterious metal cylinder tubes, he tried using one for a week. The day that he first vaped was memorable for him, he said, because ‘that was also the last day I smoked.’ The vaper terminology he used was that he converted from analog to digital — analog meaning traditional tobacco cigarettes, and digital meaning the modern e-cigarettes. I really couldn’t think of a better analogy than that. 

Two years on, and he calls himself a vaper for life. Looking around his vaping den, we don’t doubt him. On one shelf stood battery mods of different sizes and different brands, complete with labels for the amount of voltage they each produced. Then there was a massive array of various plastic vials, each adorned with quirky names which I learnt were different vaping flavors — Mango Lassi, Fanta Grape, Bandung, Nescafe, Bubblegum and even Milo Ice. Each one I inhaled tasted EXACTLY like what it was supposed to be. 

Photo: Hyper Vape Facebook page

He then walked me through the evolution of vaping devices. The first generation of e-cigarettes all simply looked like traditional cigarettes, he explained, and were even disposable once all the e-liquid was gone. As technology evolved, they started looking totally different, discarding any visual similarities to cigarettes. Today, vaping devices are completely modular, offering far more options for customisation, vaping power and temperature. Rahul shows me how he coils his heating elements by himself with a coiling kit, and how he delicately trims his organic cotton for ‘maximum wicking power, bro.’

Photo: r/coilporn

I try asking him where and how he got all his vaping equipment — to which he simply grinned and said ‘you’ll have to find that out by yourself’. Details are sketchy, but I managed to get him to reveal that most of his stuff are somehow brought in from overseas, while some of his other supplies can easily be found in convenience stores here. It was then that he grabbed my audio recorder and yelled, ‘I AM NOT SELLING ANY OF MY STUFF OKAY, SO IT IS NOT ILLEGAL’. 

Rahul’s inclination towards discretion is, of course, understandable. Even though I was strictly disallowed from taking any pictures of his room (‘I will break your fucking fingers, bro’). In fact, it’s this cloud of secrecy completely shrouding Singapore’s community of vapers that have prevented them from getting caught. 

The SG Vapers’ code

Take the biggest online forum for local vapers: the SG Vapers community on ECF, the world’s largest e-cigarette website. Old guards have been very effective in their policing the fora, consistently shutting down newfags who keep asking where to get vaping devices in Singapore. Any links to local websites or sellers that offer supplies and starter kits are immediately deleted from the discussion. 

Photo: ECF website screengrab


In fact, perhaps to be on the safe side, the folks of SG Vapers have completely discouraged people from getting their vaping devices, constantly remind everyone that it is totally illegal, period. And there’s this running gag of a user called HiShAm spying in the forums — a representation for the Health Sciences Authority no less. Health Sciences Authority, HSA, HiShAm, get it? 


The cloud-chasing kid

Some vapers aren’t so secretive with their newfound vices. A week after that very entertaining meeting with Rahul, I met up with Alex, another aficionado who was willing to talk more about his proud incursion into the #vapelife. Waiting for him at an undisclosed location in Clementi, I received a text from him. 

‘Bro, u look suspicious’.

I tried looking around for him, seeing only two middle-aged men sitting nearby. THEY looked suspicious, both talking quietly while taking occasional glances at me. Fucking coppers? I didn’t know, but I got the hell out of there. 

I met Alex later that day at another location. A sprightly young man wearing a white shirt and shorts greeted me — this was Alex, a 16-year-old kid who’s a fucking veteran vaper. We laughed nervously over the close shave with the shady duo, before he launched into the story of how he started. An admirer of charismatic YouTube vaping personality RiP Trippers, he got his first vaping kit through a popular local online marketplace and he’s been at it ever since. He’s also recently began using his vaping device for cloud-chasing, he says, as he performed (and failed) to do some cloud tricks. When asked why he even picked up vaping, he simply shrugged and said ‘Because it’s cool lor.’

Throughout the telling of his story, I noticed a faint look of disdain on his face as I sucked on my (very legal) cigarette, so I asked for his thoughts on analog smoking. ‘Smelly and disgusting, no offence,’ he said as he launched into a tirade into the well-known adverse side effects of smoking. ‘Vaping got no smell, no poison, no cancer,’ he firmly proclaimed. Alex himself has never smoked a cigarette.

‘Vaping is the future, and the future is now,’ he mimicked RiP Trippers. 

Vaping is the future, and the future is now

But is vaping the future for Singapore? I soundly believe that the MOH will never lift the ban on emerging smoking products — there’s just too many unknowns for the government to approve its use here. Of course, there’s that conspiracy theory. Many vapers I spoke to all mentioned the same thing: The government wants all smokers to keep smoking tobacco cigarettes because they’re making millions every year off its very high taxes, and legalising vaping devices will only reduce their earnings. True? Maybe. But it’s easier to believe that MOH are simply afraid of implementing anything they’re not 100 percent sure of. 

What I can say is this: During the month-long period that I loaned a vaping kit from Rahul — an iStick 20W mod topped with an Aspire Nautilus Tank clearo with some sweet-ass Mango Lassi liquid — I never thought of lighting up a cigarette. 

After I returned the vaping device to Rahul, I stopped smoking completely. And if that’s the end goal of the #vapelife, then I’m a believer. 

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