Suck it up … have traditional cigarettes had their day? Photo: Getty Images. Posed by model.
Ask me "smoking or non-smoking?" and my answer will always be non. Sure, I'm partial to a merry spliff on special occasions but, when it comes to tobacco, I'm just not a smoker. Smokers are those people I see outside airports, herding themselves into increasingly smaller pens, anxiously inhaling each other's fumes like a performance-art installation where participants are required to slowly gas themselves to death.
Predictably, I went through a phase of smoking at parties and gigs in my early 20s. There was something comforting about being in a fog of smoke with inebriated friends. Back then, I'd keep a soft pack of Peter Stuyvesant behind my stereo, out of view from visiting family members. Even now, a decade later, I find that I smoke whenever I am travelling through a foreign country on my own. What can I say? Cigarettes are cheap in south-east Asia and it's an easy way to make new friends.
Smugly, though, I've never worried about becoming a nicotine addict - which is idiotic, given that a US study has shown that even one cigarette a month is enough to trigger a long-lasting addiction. Oliver Chadwick, a 31-year-old Brisbane-based PhD student, understands this well. He started smoking at 17, harmlessly, or so he thought, bumming smokes off his flatmates. "It was really casual," he says, "but within a year, I was buying my own." Soon, Chadwick was smoking 10 to 15 cigarettes a day: in stressful periods, he'd smoke 20. "And I was a mid-range smoker, apparently," he says. "Some people average 40 to 50 a day."
As an undergrad, Chadwick looked for ways to quit. He began using patches to curb his cigarette intake and they worked until his final semester, when his stress levels rocketed. "All of a sudden, I was walking down the road and everything in my body told me, 'You need a cigarette.' " Even as Australian cigarette packets became branded with photographs of horrific, smoking-caused disease, Chadwick was helpless. "Just don't give me the dead guy," he'd silently entreat the salesperson on the other side of the counter.
About seven months ago, a friend put Chadwick on to electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes): battery-powered, fag-shaped devices users suck on to reproduce the sensation of smoking and which produce a clean - as in non-toxic - white vapour. In the past few years, e-cigarettes have become big business, with Johnny Depp, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Kate Moss, Katherine Heigl and Leonardo DiCaprio all having been "papped" puffing on brands such as SmokeStik and Vapor King. Charlie Sheen is such a die-hard convert he's even launched his own brand: NicoSheen.
To his surprise, Chadwick loved the device and the fat plumes of vapour it made. There was only one problem: he wasn't getting his nicotine hit. Unlike American e-cigarettes, Australian ones are drug-free. Chadwick's workaround was to shove two devices into his mouth simultaneously: his nicotine inhaler (an over-the-counter, suckable plastic pipe sold at chemists) and the e-cigarette. The inhaler provided the nicotine while the e-cigarette produced the vapour. The only problem was, he looked ridiculous. Now, he's found a better solution: he orders nicotine-laden e-liquids - Marlboro-flavoured - from an overseas supplier and packs them into his locally purchased e-cigarette.
My own 510-T e-cigarette starter kit costs about $60 and arrives in the mail with small vials of yellowy liquid. At first glance, they look like something illicit, until I see their labels: "champagne", "vanilla", "green mint", "coffee" and "green tea". Their smell reminds me of car deodorisers: artificial and sickly sweet. I fill the empty detachable plastic cap - included in the kit - with green tea-flavoured liquid, screw it onto the atomiser and attach it to the rechargeable battery. Once assembled, the device is the same shape and size as a mascara wand.
Examining it, the e-cigarette seems pointless to me, like having sex with a blow-up doll or getting a massage from a robot. Where's the joy? Where's the authenticity? When I put it to my mouth and inhale, though, something excellent happens: the end of the e-cigarette glows bright blue, the tip gets hot and the atomiser, heating up the liquid, makes a sound like burning paper. It feels like a cigarette. As I absent-mindedly exhale, thick white fog theatrically escapes my lips. Impressive, I can't help thinking.
For now, the federal Department of Health and Ageing remains officially wary of e-cigarettes, whether they include nicotine or not. "Consumers are warned that use of e-cigarettes may pose a danger to health, and are encouraged not to purchase these potentially harmful cigarette substitutes," a spokeswoman told me via email. She added that the devices haven't been tested by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), and manufacturers haven't attempted to legitimise their products for Australian sale by providing evidence that they are a safe form of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). That said, the TGA is commissioning its own regulatory impact statement on e-cigarettes.
None of this has stopped local business. Four years ago, Adam Royle, sales manager of e-cigarette retailer Mister Ecigs, says he barely brought in $100 a month in sales. The company, based in Wollongong, NSW, now makes between $40,000 and $50,000 a month. Despite the lack of TGA approval, e-cigarettes appear to be the next huge thing in NRT - an industry that sold $174 million worth of products (patches, gum, inhalers) nationally in 2011 alone. Retailers are waiting on the nod. "We find we have a huge success rate of people using the product without nicotine," Royle says, "but it's a waiting game. Legislation will change. We don't just know when."
It might be sooner than he thinks. In the next few months, an independent, federally funded Queensland-based study will survey 1600 smokers to test the effectiveness of e-cigarettes as a long-term NRT strategy. The lead researcher declined to talk in-depth with Good Weekend, mainly because every time she discusses her work dozens of people contact her wanting access to e-cigarettes, especially ones loaded with nicotine.
As I continue to puff on my own model, I get it. Yes, they look ridiculous. Yes, they are fundamentally pointless. But, hey, so are the real thing.