McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

March 26, 2014

Vapefest: Where e-cigarette camaraderie is in the air — along with haze

By Dan Zak
The Washington Post

HERNDON, Va. — The scent on the breeze is — what? Guava, with a hint of lion's mane? Or maybe a cocktail of vanilla and cherry menthol and jungle juice. Past the hotel lobby, the haze thickens. Smells sharpen, then muddle, then sharpen again. It's smoky, except it's not, because it is vapor that's being expelled in great white plumes in the ballroom, which is clogged with vapers, because this is Vapefest. An announcement is being made.

"Meet Beefcake the Mighty," says a young vaper in a teal polo shirt into a microphone, referencing the large man dressed as some kind of mythic warlord from hell. "He will autograph your juice for you."

Where to begin.

With the haze, yes, and the smell. But then?

Start simple. Vapefest is a convention and fundraiser for users and vendors of electronic cigarettes. Users of electronic cigarettes are called vapers. Vapers vape vapor. Beefcake the Mighty is a member of the thrash metal band Gwar, whose albums include "This Toilet Earth." You may remember the song called "The Obliteration of Flab Quarv 7."

OK.

So Beefcake the Mighty is a vaper, and he is what passes for a celebrity at Vapefest, which is pretty darn fun, as far as hotel conventions around Dulles International Airport in Virginia go. (You'd probably rather meet Beefcake the Mighty than other e-cigarette pitchmen, such as Jenny McCarthy and Stephen Dorff, right?) Even after working the room for five hours and inhaling clouds of secondhand atomized propylene glycol, there are still interesting people to talk to — and not a hint of dry eye or scratchy throat, or that icky feeling you might get from sucking tarry poison into your infuriated bronchi.

"They found this, and they were able to get off cigarettes, and they've become very passionate about it," says Cheryl Richter, the financial secretary of the National Vapers Club and owner of an e-cigarette shop in Port Chester, N.Y. "Now vapers like to hang out with other vapers, and we don't like to hang out with smokers at all, because we hate that smell now."

The smell here at the Dulles Hyatt on Friday afternoon, where roughly 1,000 people were expected to gather over two days, is sweet and pungent.

Now the look here is another story. The vapers at Vapefest look as if they're taking a smoke break — sorry, vape break — from a sci-fi convention or a Harley-Davidson ride. Some of them are clearly sporting scabs from skateboard accidents. Some of them are clearly wearing one of their half-dozen Men's Wearhouse suits. Some of them look like they belong at a Leesburg PTA meeting, or in Middle Earth, or the 1910s. One vendor here sells both "shire malt" and "Grandpa's cough medicine" e-liquids (or "juice"), the vials of flavored nicotine that are electronically vaporized when you suck on the mouthpiece of an e-cigarette, or "mod," as the vapers refer to the device.

Most of the mods look like sheathed light sabers. They're not the dainty penlike items you'd buy at a gas station. These are hand-held lithium-powered objects of sorcery that mimic the Pavlovian choreography of smoking: the hand-to-mouth movement, the "throat hit" and the, uh, suckle.

Under a tent near speakers that are playing AC/DC, Matt Wellman is vaping a Gandalf pipe made of spalted tamarind. It's handsome, shankless and claw-like. He fashioned it at Steam Cigs, his shop, vapers lounge and manufacturing base in Lawrenceville, Ga.

"It's a battery holder," he says of the pipe. "It's just a very pretty battery holder."

A former home remodeler, Wellman made his first e-pipe in December 2010 using his grandfather's pipe-smoker tools. His company, ePipeMods, has made 10,000 since, employs a dozen people and is estimated to do $1 million in business this year.

Vapers line up to admire the craftsmanship. They buy discounted vials and fly through plastic mouthpieces while trying flavors. They fondle a range of mods and accessories such as colored screw-on bands that say "Vapestrong." They gab and exhale majestic billows of vapor at round tables piled high with merchandise, cans of Miller Lite and glass pints of Blue Moon from the bar in the lobby.

This bit of revelry and commerce is part of building the e-cigarette industry from the ground up, drag by drag, small business by small business. Vapers are fighting legislative battles as states try to figure out how to restrict, tax or otherwise regulate vaping, which is often coupled by lawmakers with regular tobacco cigarettes. Vapers credit vaping for getting them off traditional cigarettes, often overnight and cold turkey, but vendors are cautioned from touting the health benefits, which are in dispute.

"You're not saving anyone's life," says Cynthia Cabrera of the Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Association during a "legal and political education" breakout session for festgoers. "You're selling a lifestyle product."

The lifestyle, though, exists because of its divorce from traditional cigarettes, which are proven killers. The secretary of the National Vapers Club, who goes by the name Malicedoll, is standing on the periphery of Vapefest as dinnertime approaches. She's wearing a bodice and a cascading hairfall made of black and white yarn. Malicedoll is a licensed embalmer from Phoenix, and she also has fangs (via minor cosmetic dental surgery).

She's vaping lemonade ice from a mod with a case featuring cast members of the CW show "Supernatural." Beefcake the Mighty has taken his place on the opposite end of the ballroom and is signing mods and posters.

What does she see when she looks around Vapefest, besides the haze, of course, and a delightfully odd and diverse occasion?

"People who want to live," Malicedoll says, shrugging. "People who don't want to die."