I heard vaping wasn't safe. It made my smoking-cessation aid seem oddly cooler.

It's hard to feel subversive when you're sucking on a plastic stick that smells like candy to quit smoking. But a good moral panic will do that for me.
Illustration of hand removing a vape pen from a Marlboro man.
Vaping has increased my chances of dying in a freak exercise accident because it’s helped curb my decade-long smoking habit.Zack Rosebrugh / for NBC News
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By Jeff Winkler

Taped on the glass display inside the local, boutique vape shop I go to last week was a piece of paper with the words “Clearance Sale” on it. It was, quite literally, a bad sign.

The man behind the counter nodded his head gravely as he gripped his own vape like a rosary and confirmed that the store would be closing in two weeks. My heart sank — a cardiovascular condition could be attributed to my decade-long smoking habit. But I knew the real cause. The Great Vape Scare of 2019 had claimed another victim.

It’d be hard to miss the latest panic concerning vaping, which began in earnest about a month ago when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that it was investigating the mysterious vape-linked deaths of more than 150 people. Well, not people-people… “young people” and teens — the children who are our future. It was just like Nightmare on Elm Street, slow, eerie haze and all.

The reaction, especially by responsible and virtuous adults, was just like it is in horror movies, too — clumsy and heavy-handed. By the beginning of October, seven states moved to ban vaping. They’ve held congressional hearings on this national emergency.

I received most of this panic news via personal texts from concerned, non-vaping friends and family. The texts all said something like “be careful” or, more ominously, just linked to a news article and nothing else.

But even that was just upping the scare ante of the past several months. Before this mysterious vape killer, media organizations were getting the vapors over exploding vapes. “Vape pen explodes, shatters teen’s teeth, jaw” read one headline. Another read: “E-cigarette Exploding in Anaheim Man's Pocket Caught on Camera.” Were it not for the breathless media coverage and online ads for personal injury lawyers dedicated to benefiting from potential lawsuits, I could have mistaken the vape crisis for an urban legend.

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Yet, instead of being alarmed for my safety, I was invigorated. The supposed risk gave the relatively tame act of vaping (compared to my long-time cigarette addiction) all the excitement of a spooky slumber party game, like Bloody Mary, Candyman or the more millennial-era “Student Loan Officer.”

The thing about being a longtime smoker is that — occasionally — your friends and family will lovingly warn you about your fatal habit. It is the No. 1 preventable death in the United States. Every pack of cigarettes includes a placard listing one of the many ailments that smoking causes or exacerbates: from birth defects to bad teeth to gangrene. (I’ve collected the whole set.) And since friends and family know that you know you’ve heard it all before, their warnings are more of a formality.

And, after a decade of smoking, most smokers will admit that there is little pleasure in it and there is certainly nothing surprising in it since it is, by definition, a habit. In this new menace, though, there was an element of suspense. Who’s next? The idea that, instead of a stodgy newspaper obituary that read “He died of lung cancer,” I might be immortalized by a clickbait URL is at least as novel as the exploding cigar gag was back in 1913.

The social stigmatization and demonization of smoking and smokers — now firmly in place — started long ago. I knew the idea of smokers-as-the-hip-kids was in trouble when Vin Diesel’s cool anti-hero Xander Cage blew up a chain-smoking villain with a heat-seeking missile and grunted, “I told him that cigarettes would kill him one day,” back in 2002. A smoker, in the cultural imagination of 2019, doesn’t do yoga, eat all-natural foods, sniff essential oils, go to college or engage in self-care regimes because those are the habits of the healthy, wealthy and wise. (And the CDC has confirmed that it is poor people with physical and mental issues who smoke the most.)

And if a mild sense that I was doing something dangerous weren’t enough to keep me vaping, there is also the sense of smell and taste — mine, to other people. Before vaping, I smelled like a smoker, which is to say, I smelled unvirtuous and undesirable, like I had bad taste.

Thanks to vaping, however, I now smell like success ... and cotton candy. I know this because it’s how female strangers have delightedly described my scent, often with the same sort of glint in their eyes you see when you declare that you have a full-time job and a 401(k).

So my soon-to-close vape shop had started to function as a cologne shop. With a single vape huff, I can smell like a whole range of desserts and fantasies: Banana Pudding, Hawaiian Sun, Blueberry Shine, Southern Sweet Tea. Nothing smells like being a productive member of society like that sweet hint of graham cracker in the “Chocolate Cheese Cake" vape flavor. And any of the scents are certainly preferable to being stigmatized and ostracized, or dying of some boring, and preventable, cancer.

I would count all the ways that vaping is slowly making my life better, but I’m afraid I’d run out of breath.

Vaping has increased my chances of dying in a freak exercise accident because it’s helped curb my decade-long smoking habit. When I told my doctor that I’d begun substituting cigarettes with a vape and was even slowly decreasing the amount of nicotine in my Cherry Cheese Cake flavor, she was thrilled. I was taking conscious steps to ween myself from a terrible habit. True, the vaping isn’t a great habit — it’s no yoga — but it is far less terrible than smoking cigarettes and a small, logical step made by a semi-rational adult.

The same cannot be said of the purveyors of the Great Vape Panic. Those deaths, we’re now learning, likely aren’t caused by “vaping” in general but specifically inhaling black market products, often with THC. The number of explosions or fires caused by vape pens, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s last study of news reports, is 195 over the course of seven years (which also notes the propensity of users to buy aftermarket batteries and modify the products in ways not intended by the manufacturers).

And as for the fear that teens across the country are ruining their lives in some newfangled and highly ironic way? It’s almost like people forgot about Tide pods, "smoking" Smarties and all the previous biannual hand wringing about the various parent-shocking activities of our best and brightest, i.e., affluent white kids.

Yes, habitual smoking is bad. But the efforts to eliminate any kind of smoking — like campus-wide bans or “emergency executive action” to stop the scourge of harm-reduction tools like vapes by eliminating them for everybody — demonstrate that what’s being promulgated is not safety but forced virtue. It's zero tolerance by people who often pat themselves for being ever so tolerant. And, like all zero-tolerance policies aimed at teens, it's likely to be ineffective in the long term.

That’s the final thing I like about vaping: Puffing away at my relatively safe, perfectly pleasant and exceedingly logical secession therapy device, knowing a bunch of crusading do-gooders are somewhere elevating their blood pressure to unhealthy — I dare say sinful — levels. Apart from a good vape hit, nothing's quite as smooth and calming as the feeling of being right.

Sure, obsessively jamming a little plastic stick in my mouth makes me look a seventh grade clarinetist who buys Monster energy drinks and Affliction T-shirts in bulk. But I’ll be able to let out a hearty laugh about our latest non-crisis... just as soon as vaping provides my formerly smoke-filled lungs with enough capacity to do so.