During a year that has felt at times like one unending root canal, one of the few pleasures that have made my existence a little more bearable has been vaping. I’ve spent a good part of 2018 enveloped in a gentle haze, like living in my own personal mist-ladened Turner painting.
There are few places where I haven’t vaped in 2018—I’ve vaped at my desk, in the Gizmodo Media Group bathrooms (sorry, Univision), in airplane bathrooms (sorry, JetBlue) and in airport bathrooms (sorry, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey). I vape in the mornings and vape in the evenings and in all of the hours in between. I am vaping while writing these very words.
I’m never without my vape, or rather, my vapes—a slim, discreet Juul and a proudly unstylish rainbow-colored brick-like SMOK (pronounced, I’m assuming, like “smoke” but possibly “smock”) X-Priv, which looks like a unicorn barfed all over a Nokia phone from the ’90s, doubles as a weapon (this baby is heavy), and has about 20 adjustable settings that I’ve yet to fully decipher. Unlike one of my friends, I do not have a room in my apartment solely devoted to my vape paraphernalia (he has, sadly, recently been forced to turn his vape cave into a baby nursery). But like him, this year, I’ve acquired numerous bottles of variously flavored juices, an assortment of tanks and coils, and the alarming penchant to casually ask other vapers, “What’s your favorite mod?”
Here is where I’m obligated to state that if you are not already a cigarette smoker, I would not recommend picking up vaping (while decidedly healthier than smoking, the long-term health effects of vaping are still unknown). And unlike what some adults and an alarmingly large number of teenagers believe, I do not think vaping makes me look cool. A serious interest in vaping, after all, requires you to become intimately acquainted with brands that have names like SMOK and VooPoo and with shops named Vape Daddy’s and Planet of the Vapes, which anyone with a shred of self-respect would, in normal circumstances, take care to avoid.
And yet, in 2018, it made a lot of sense to replace a habit that would definitely shorten my lifespan if not kill me outright with its simulacra that maybe would not. I first vaped when a friend of mine gifted me a Juul in early 2016. After a few pleasant minty puffs, I promptly put it away in a drawer and didn’t think about it again until this year, when I noticed that one of the consequences of a Trump presidency was a marked increase in my cigarette intake, an uptick that was only alarming my dentist and making me feel terrible and tired all of the time. While there’s no good time to quit smoking, our current moment definitely felt like a bad time to try quitting cold turkey, so I brought the Juul out from retirement and bought some cucumber-flavored pods (my favorite, the flavor of which Jezebel editor-in-chief Julianne Escobedo Shepherd described as “the crispness of the mint but with a clean overtone that implies a nice plate of crudités or a raw vegan coleslaw”).
I soon discovered that the pleasures of vaping are distinct from those of smoking, not least of which is a neat mental trick that turns one’s nicotine addiction from a filthy habit in which you feel like a social pariah and addict participating in a disgusting, outdated practice peddled by evil corporations to a hobby involving cutting-edge technology that feels clean, akin to replacing a Land Rover with a Prius. It’s an illusion, but a pleasant one (and please don’t take it away from me). Perhaps you agree with my assessment? Almost 11 million Americans are vape enthusiasts, up from about 9 million in 2014, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control.
And the man whom I turned to in 2018 for all things vape-related? Ahmed Ahmed, the owner of Vape N Cloud in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights. I first met Ahmed through my friend Shelby, who began frequenting his store and quickly began singing his praises. Ahmed has since—I am not exaggerating here—become the most important man in my life.
Ahmed, who was born in Yemen and came to the U.S. when he was a teenager, opened his vape shop with his father and cousin in early 2016 after working in a family member’s cigar store. On a recent December evening behind the counter of Vape N Cloud, as we (of course) vaped—him with a white Snowwolf Mfeng 200W, me on my aforementioned SMOK X-Priv with a 0 percent nicotine mango mint-flavored juice—we talked about why he wanted to open a vape store, who he thinks should vape and who shouldn’t, and what he loves about vaping.
This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
JEZEBEL: Why did you want to open a vape store?
Ahmed Ahmed: It’s a big industry now. It’s a big movement in vaping right now. It’s the new thing that people do. What’s the next thing that people like to do but is going to be helpful at the same time? What comes to my mind, vaping. I used to smoke hookah a lot, which vaping helped me quit. But when I vaped, I felt cleaner. When I worked out, I feel my lungs are not that tired.
It’s good to help people transfer from smoking cigarettes. They could save a lot of money, and then health-wise, vaping is cleaner for you, for your lungs. The only thing is you have to choose the right amount of milligrams of nicotine. And then with that, it helps you to come off cigarettes, and it helps you to quit. Thinking about myself, I’m not a [cigarette] smoker. I actually do like it with no nicotine in it. But I do it for the flavor and taste.
When we first opened in 2016, vaping was already beginning to get bigger and bigger. Vaping is exploding in every city that I see, every spot that I go to.
How exactly does vaping help people quit smoking cigarettes?
You vape yourself. When’s the last time you smoked cigarettes? And then if you ever go back to the cigarette, you’re not actually going to enjoy the actual taste of the cigarette because you’ve been vaping for such a long time.
That’s true, I really dislike the taste of cigarettes now.
You feel satisfied with the smoke that gets out of the vape, and then when you actually go back to smoke a cigarette, well you’re not going to get the same satisfying feel as vaping.
That’s why I love vaping, and that’s why for the past three years I’ve been working in a vape shop. I love working here. I get to meet a lot of people and then I love how people were willing to start vaping and they feel so happy about it. They come the second week, they’d be like, “Oh my God, I’m actually doing this, I feel so great. I love the vaping and I will definitely keep vaping and thanks for the idea.”
I feel good about the vape shop. I give them my advice that they should do it. I’m investing my money, making a profit on it, and at the same time, I’m helping people. It’s a good thing, instead of, like, having a fast food restaurant.
[It’s] what people will do in the future. If you walk in the street, you will see from these 20 people, two of them will start vaping. Two of them definitely.
Tell me about your customer base. Have you seen the people who are into vaping change over time?
I’ll say, when I first started, I would have these mid-20s, mid-30s [customers]. After that, people in their 40s and 50s and those people, they’ve been smoking for 10, 20 years. And I’d be surprised, I would see adults come in here and asked me for advice for vaping. And then they’d be like, they’ve been smoking for 20, 30 years. And I have a lady that’s 60 years old. And she’s like, “Vaping’s the greatest thing I ever did.” Also, then the new generations, they want to actually smoke, but they don’t want to be a smoker. They start smoking cigarettes, but they don’t feel satisfied by smoking cigarettes. They feel bad that they smoke cigarettes.
I will say every day, I will get about 10 new customers.
Is that an increase from 2016 when you opened?
In 2016, I would wait for an hour for customers in my shop. And now, when you come here, I will have five customers in line waiting to get something. It’s a good thing.
A lot of people think of vaping as something that only young people do.
No. It’s also both. It’s young and also adult too. My dad is 45 years old, he smokes. He used to smoke cigarettes before, and then when I first opened the shop he started vaping. It’s been three years and he’s never smoked cigarettes again. That’s one improvement that I see from my dad.
Do you ever get teenagers who try and come in?
You must be 21 to enter the shop. We’re going to ask you for ID. If you don’t have one, I’m sorry, we can’t help you. They try to come in, but I will tell them not to come in.
Okay, let’s do a lightning round of questions. What’s your favorite mod right now?
I like SMOK. And then I’ll like the Tesla Punk and then the Snow Wolf.
What other products do you like?
I love FreeMax coils, the FreeMax Pro, the new coil for the new tank. I like also building my own coils, like RDTA or RDA.
What’s the top selling flavor here?
Zenith Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
Earlier this year, I tried a strawberries and cream flavor, and it was not pleasant.
Those are not a good mix. When you do creamy and strawberry flavor at the same time, you have to have the actual flavor of strawberry. If the strawberry is not as strong as the creamy flavor, it’s going to be too creamy.
I’m still a vape newbie. What’s the difference between a lower and a higher wattage?
If you want less smoke but more flavors you could do it lower wattage. High wattages—like you smoke yours around 80, 90 right?
No, like 70 watts.
Seventy. That’s good, that’s average. You have got a good decent cloud and at the same time, you got flavor too.
What do you put yours on?
I put it around 80, 90.
I like more cloud and after that, I get the taste. And I’m good, it’s good for tricks because I like to do tricks. I’m a trickster.
Like smoke rings?
Yeah, you do like the jellyfish rings.
What’s the jellyfish?
The jellyfish [is] when you create a big hole and then you create smoke through it.
Can I see?
Aside from the health benefits you’ve gotten from replacing hookah smoking with vaping, what’re the other reasons you enjoy vaping?
Good smell, good flavors, you don’t feel miserable after you smoke a vape. I like cloud chasing, I like to do tricks. It’s a good habit for me. I don’t want to end up smoking any other drugs or doing any other thing besides vaping. I’m just, “No, I just keep vaping.”
Before, I was actually into sneakers. I would do a selection of sneakers I like and everything. And now I’m into vapes, so I’ll get these mods that are nice colors and I’ll have a collection. I actually have about 10, but I trade them and I sell them.
Do your friends vape too?
Yeah, I mean like we’ll play video games and vape at the same time, it’s a good thing. I will go with my friends out to a hookah lounge and stuff, we get to drink some tea and then talk about business. And most of my friends, they smoke hookah. I just say, “I cannot smoke hookah no more.” So I just start vaping.
Have a lot of them switched to vaping?
Yeah. Half of my friends now started vaping because of me. My cousin, he was smoking cigarettes, and then me and him, we was hanging out at a hookah lounge and I was like, “Why don’t you start vaping?” I’ll hook you up. He’s like, “Man, I’ve been smoking since I was in college, I cannot, I’d like to try it out.” But, it only took the first week and then he liked it and then now he kept vaping.
You’ve also been converting a lot of your customers who smoke hookah or cigarettes.
You’re like a public health—
A public health vape god, hahaha! Speaking of public health, what do you think about teenagers vaping?
No, it’s not a good idea, because it will affect the business of vaping. Like hookah now, they did all the new laws and everything. Now, you cannot open a hookah lounge. You cannot do it because you’ll see all these kids want to hookah 24/7.
Why would you do something that you never—if you smoked cigarettes and you transferred to vape, that’s good. But if you never did anything at all... when you turn 21, come and do a zero milligram.
Are you worried about the FDA?
The FDA is going after Juul because it’s the first company that went so fast and it got so big within the past two years. They should focus on online stores first, because [teenagers] can get it online without proof of ID or anything.
What do you want curious about vaping to know?
I hope everybody who smokes cigarettes gives a vape a try, and then you will see how you’re going to feel about vaping. Don’t listen to the media and everything. I agree with everything that has been said about minors, they should not try vaping. If you’re a smoker, try to vape. If you don’t smoke, if you’re old enough to vape, you are welcome in and try zero nicotine [juice], do not try any nicotine. If you’re a smoker and you’re trying to cut down, give a vape a try and you will see.
You’re like a walking anti-smoking PSA.
Thank you, that means a lot.
Any last thoughts?
It’s so cool. I swear. Vaping. Oh my God. When I’m driving around the street and I see people vaping, I’ll be like, oh my God, that makes me feel good because everybody’s started vaping. And sometimes I’m driving, I’m stopped at a red light and then I’m vaping, listening to music and going to work or going home and then this guy next to me is driving, and he’s vaping at the same time. I’ll be like, oh my God, vape nation! And he’s like, yes, vape nation. He’s like, what flavor are you doing? I’m like, yeah, I’m doing this flavor, ice. Keep vaping. Stay healthy.