This story was updated on Jan. 8, 2020.
I blame Robert DeNiro.
I’ve been a hopeless movie nerd all my life, and when I was a teenager, DeNiro was my favorite actor. Mean Streets. The Godfather Part II. The Deer Hunter. One thing about the man, and this is generally acknowledged by film scholars: No one looks cooler smoking a cigarette.
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but that’s how I started smoking, 30 years ago. I got hooked, of course, and it’s been an increasingly serious problem ever since. I’ve tried to quit dozens of times, using all the standard protocols — gum, nicotine patches, prescription drugs, 12-step programs, cognitive therapy, even hypnosis. Nothing worked.
But I’m happy to report that I haven’t had a cigarette in five months now — my longest stretch in three decades — and the solution stunned me. I tried vaping. And it worked.
This presents a dilemma, however, in that I have a teenager at home. I’ve read the stories about the troublesome rise vaping-related illnesses and deaths, as well as the recent enforcement actions banning the flavored e-cigarettes that are popular among younger users.
And I know, from experience, how impressionable teenagers can be. I don’t want my son to see me vaping. But I really don’t want him seeing me smoking cigarettes. More to the point, I don’t want to see me smoking cigarettes. Is one bad habit — and one bad role model — better than another?
To my eye, vaping doesn’t look especially cool. An e-cigarette looks like a little plastic stick; it’s sometimes cylindrical, like a mini-cigar, sometimes flat, sometimes in-between. The more advanced vaping systems come in an array of shapes and sizes. All consist of the same basic elements: a mouthpiece, a battery, a heating element, and a liquid that, when warmed, turns into an aerosol vapor that looks and tastes like smoke. In recent years, teens have been drawn to the colorful packages, the fruit and candy flavor options, the ageless appeal of forbidden adult activity.
But as a desperate middle-aged smoker, I was drawn less to the flavor and the rebel spirit, and more to the potential end result: a way to get off cigarettes. That meant I started with a different set of questions. Would I be doing the right thing, healthwise? Is vaping safer than cigarettes?
Each cigarette hurt in a way that only smokers can really understand. I could feel my body recoiling, almost on a cellular level, with each inhalation.
To find out, I started clicking around and digging out the relevant research. I put a good chunk of time into it and concluded that the answer, according to current science, is somewhere between “maybe” and “probably.” The core issue is that, as a public health issue, vaping is just too new; despite the recent scares, there have been no long-term medical studies that track its consequences over time.
Nevertheless, before the more recent bans, a consensus was emerging that vaping was probably safer than cigarettes, in the sense that pretty much anything is safer than cigarettes. In an oft-cited study by England’s public health agency, researchers concluded that vaping is 95 percent less harmful than smoking. (In fact, the agency has initiated a campaign to actively encourage smokers to switch to e-cigarettes.) And a recent study published by the New England Journal of Medicine found that e-cigarettes were nearly twice as effective as other nicotine replacement products for quitting smoking.
But when I emailed with Arthur Atlas, M.D., director of pediatric pulmonology at Goryeb Children’s Hospital in Morristown, New Jersey, I got some less reassuring answers on the big picture questions.
“Our lungs are designed only to be exposed to the air we breathe, so whenever you introduce things into the lungs other than air, there’s always a concern,” Atlas wrote to me.
And even if vaping eventually turns out to be relatively safe, he wrote, a nicotine addiction isn’t advisable.
“If someone is smoking and they want to vape to stop or change how they’re getting nicotine, it may be a better option. But if they can do without smoking and vaping, they’re going to be better off.”
I agree with the good doctor, in principle. But the truth is that my experience with e-cigarettes has been largely positive. It’s been 172 days now since I switched and I haven’t even thought of going back to cigarettes. That is a small but glorious miracle in my life.
The upsides, so far, have been plentiful. When I was smoking, each cigarette hurt in a way that only smokers can really understand. I could feel my body recoiling, almost on a cellular level, with each inhalation. But at the same time, I craved that hurt, that burn, that complicated sweetness. Vaping, to my great surprise, provides that same burning sensation without the underlying feeling of damage. My cells do not feel outraged every time I inhale.
Vaping has virtually no odor. I can smoke indoors if I want, although I still try not to. I no longer feel like a social pariah hiding in back alleyways to sneak a smoke. (That is a truly lousy feeling, by the way. Please have pity on smokers.) I don’t have to carry around mints and hand sanitizer anymore. I don’t have to dispose of ashes or butts. Vaping is cheaper than cigarettes, too. Not by much, but still.
I can also report that I feel much better, physically. I’m not coughing. I’m not tired all the time. And perhaps most importantly, I’m not mad at myself after each cigarette.
So, guilty as I sometimes feel about my new vaping habit — and the message it might be sending — the truth is that I have no intention of quitting any time soon. Absent any scientific revelations, I plan to just slot it right next to coffee, as an addiction I rather enjoy.
As for my impressionable son? It helps that he’s ridiculously health-conscious and athletic. (That’s a gene that apparently skips several generations, since I come from a long line of happy, heedless, and hard-living Scotsmen.) When I asked him whether he’s ever tried vaping or smoking, he gave me that withering look that teens have been aiming at their fathers since time began. He’s just not interested in doing those dangerous, unhealthy things that I found so interesting when I was 15. And — perhaps because rebellion means not being like your dad — the thing that I find appealing, he finds uncool. It makes me happy and confused at the same time. Teenagers. What can you do?
Now I just have to keep him away from DeNiro movies.