Does Vaping Suffer From a Case of Toxic Masculinity?
2013 saw the number of people using e-cigarettes in the UK rise from 700,000 to 2.1 million; 2014 saw the Oxford English Dictionary make vaping its word of the year; and now, in 2017, annual British quit smoking campaign STOPTOBER is backing vaping as a viable way to stop the habit.
Despite its short time on the market, vaping has facilitated the cessation of over 1.5 million smoking habits in the UK alone. Yet, in spite of the relative health benefits of vaping, the media coverage responding to its sudden surge in popularity has been less than complimentary.
Conflicting reporting, misleading titles and the perpetuation of negative health myths have dogged vaping’s rise into the popular consciousness. What should be a clear-cut representation of the science supporting a potentially life-saving switch out, has been blurred into ambivalence.
Despite its evidenced popularity in use, the public perception of vaping has been pervaded by a culture of the uncool. With media caricaturing the ultimate vaper as a sleeveless vest and scarf combo, trilby wearing bro, who hates women as much as he disregards other people’s personal space and loves Donald Trump. This character has even been cemented in meme form, “do you even vape bro?”
As a vaping retailer, we know that a lot of women vape, and are integral to the vaping scene both in the manufacturing and retailing end - but we can’t ignore that those inside and outside of the industry have raised valid questions over the inclusivity of the culture surrounding vaping. Specifically, are these criticisms valid? Is the vaping industry being damaged by toxic masculinity?
The blame has largely been laid upon the more showboating aspects of vaping, namely the huge plumes of vapour that some vapers blowout in public spaces. Cloud chasers, or high-performance vapers, are those that recreationally and competitively attempt to blow out the biggest and densest vapour clouds. The apparent pervasion of these vapers roaming the streets has been so extensive that it has lead to publications both inside and outside of the vaping industry to call them out for tarnishing the public image of vaping. Including the BBC who published an article on the etiquette of vaping in public. Hell, even we jumped on the bandwagon, which you can read here.
Whilst there’s no denying that being engulfed in a cloud of vanilla custard flavoured vapour when you’re at the bus stop might not be the most pleasant experience for some, I’d argue that it is only a very small minority of vapers that behave in such a way. Realistically vaping is governed by much of the same laws, both written and socially implicit, as smoking, and takes up an equal amount of public space. So why, recently, are vapers disproportionately put under such an acute spotlight?
It could lie in the oppositional nature of the relationship between vaping and smoking.
Smoking has been entrenched in our culture for centuries, and whilst it’s history hasn’t been squeaky clean, for a long time our perception of smoking was that it was not only cool but good for you - as my gran used to say. With a long legacy and a huge amount of financial backing to protect its image, even in the wake of turning tides and increased legislation, it has been so deeply ingrained in us that smoking is cool, that it’s still somewhat of a trope even now.
Emphasised by figures like James Dean, it seemed that being cool, and even to a certain point, being a man, was characterised not only by smoking but by holding a complete disregard for your own health. Worrying about your life expectancy and the potential risks of various cancers is pretty antithetical to the characteristics of action heroes like James Bond.
Vaping then, in its antithesis, must work extra hard to combat the oppositional uncool of smoking, whilst attempting to corner the same market who have grown up with films, TV and popular culture that glorify the tobacco industry.
One of the main concerns being raised about vape culture is its aggressively masculine advertising, emphatically displayed at global vape expos and competitions. Vast amounts of money are being sunk into marketing videos and stands that utilise semi-nude women, not as customers, but as props with which to sell vaping tools. Like the ring girls of boxing, these women are there to engage and pacify male consumers, making some vape stands at industry events a uniquely and intimidatingly male event.
But why are vaping manufacturers more focused on selling women than selling to them? By all accounts it’s been shown that women are far more likely to try vaping than men, so why sidestep such a huge emerging demographic.
It could be that the vaping industry is focusing on chasing the tail of the smoking industry, which almost exclusively directed its advertising towards men. Due in large part because when the tobacco industry was allowed to advertise freely, women still weren’t classed as consumers due to you know, being stuck in that darn kitchen.
It could be that in its infancy, the vaping industry still hasn’t figured out that women are also primary consumers. Despite the desire to not reek of stale cigarette smoke and actively attempt to better your health tending to be a gender-neutral decision.
Attempts to rectify the more ‘manly’ aspects of the industry through manufacturing more diminutive vapes, that could be easily mistaken for a lipstick tube, or the Kanger Lily, which is pink and covered in crystals, often end up creating more issues than they address. Implying that women, and not men, ought to be discreet about vaping and that women can’t appreciate a decent piece of kit unless it’s in a gender appropriate colour.
More likely, any rampant sexism within the vaping society is serving as a microcosm of Western society as a whole.
Even now, there tends to be a division amongst certain attributes, traits, hobbies and even professions between the genders. Vaping tends to play into the more masculine side with its DIY ethos, basic engineering requirements and love of gadgetry. And the industry may tend to lean slightly into that representation. Complaints of women being disregarded and talked down to in vape stores - because women’s minds can’t process the complex mechanics of winding their own coils, obviously - are similar to complaints of women being disregarded and talked down to across the span of modern society. See, the multiple stories of women having a lack of knowledge assumed based on their gender, leading to things like having their own books explained back to them.
And to look more closely at the issue of toxically masculine advertising within the vaping community; you can track inspiration from the countless advertisements we consume every day where women are used as props to sell, and not as viable consumers to be sold to. Whether it’s for a burger or for aftershave.
Yes, there are strains of toxic masculinity in vaping, but it is definitely not holding it back from saving the world, as proved by the increasing numbers of both women and men making the switch annually. Nor is vaping culture overrun by it.
Arguably, the daily lived experiences of vapers around the world, using vaping to quit smoking and existing on the peripherals of vape culture, aren’t largely affected by anything outside of an occasional, if diminishing, stereotype.
That’s not to say that there are not things that should be changed. It is the responsibility of the manufacturers and the community to ensure that women are equally represented in how vaping is presented and equally included in the culture, but vaping is still a young industry and with the benefit of time and awareness, will have plenty of opportunity to change.