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EDITORIAL: Vape’s Image Problem

OAKBROOK TERRACE, Ill. — The second season of HBO’s True Detective drew criticism for plenty of reasons. It was poorly cast, scattered, with little of the magic chemistry carrying over from the first season. What I, however, took objection to was the frequency in which the series poked fun at Rachel McAdams’ character for puffing on an electronic cigarette, likening it to lewd acts with a robot.

It’s indicative of what I’ve come to view as vape’s larger image problem. From Julia Louis-Dreyfus puffing on an e-cig as part of a 2014 Golden Globes gag to College Humor naming electronic cigarette smokers as one of its “new breeds of d-bags,” vaping has somehow become synonymous with, well, jerkiness.

It’s kind of infuriating. Forget the fact that you’d never see someone using nicotine gum being chastised by the media. Forget the fact that shows like True Detective mock vaping but say nothing when a character is depicted smoking. What’s so problematic about the negative media portrayal of vaping is that, because this segment is so new, these e-cig gags could actually affect how consumers feel about the products—especially when there’s no shortage anti-e-cig voices telling anyone who will listen about the evils of vaping.

I’ve watched firsthand the leeriness of my friends when someone pulls out an e-cig. At best, they’re noticeably uncomfortable about vaping going on in such “close” proximity; at worst, they’re vehemently questioning if e-cigs are really any better for you than smoking.

These are stereotypical millennial, urban-dwelling, Whole Foods-shopping, techies I’m talking about: the exact segment vaping should most appeal to. If they’re questioning the segment, we’ve got a big, big problem.

So what can we, as an industry, do about this? Unfortunately, I’m not sure the retail side can do anything about the questions on health and safety. Sure, education can happen on the store level. But until there are some regulations on the segment, some recognition from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that e-cigs indeed fall drastically lower on the spectrum of risk than combustible products, I fear we’ve hit our limit on how much retailers can truly educate the public at large.

As for the image problem—the stereotype of the tattooed, snobby, outsider toting a five-pound tank and five bottles of designer e-liquids—I truly believe the presence of national retail chains in the segment is helping to alleviate some of that. Not to trash vape shops and some of their clientele, but the fact that well-known operators like Walmart or 7-Eleven are in the game proves that vape is not just for this niche segment of the population, as some of the latest media portrayals would lead you to believe.

Even if vape hasn’t yet fully reached the masses, the fact that it’s available (and selling) at convenience stores—the channel for the masses—suggests its mainstream potential.

In other words, keep fighting the good fight.

Melissa Vonder Haar


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