At ‘vape’ competitions, it’s all about community
QUINCY — Justin Tenney and Danny DeSantis stood with their backs to each other as if they were in an old-fashioned duel.
After pressing the tips of their modified electronic cigarettes to their mouths, they lowered their bodies to a crouch, a tactic they believed would give them the greatest lung capacity. As the evening’s moderator counted to five, the two finalists rose to a standing position before pushing out swirling clouds of sweet-smelling vapor shaped like horizontal tornadoes.
The panel of three judges in the “Cloud Competition,” where 100 people had gathered, watched closely for three things: distance, density, and dissipation.
In the hazy room at DeJa Vapes, a vaporizer retailer, Tenney, 35, emerged as the clear winner.
“I don’t normally win,” the champion said humbly after a brief hug with DeSantis.
As the largely unregulated industry continues to grow like the clouds expelled by users, such tournaments have increased in popularity, drawing an ever-larger number of “vapers.” Shop owners give out hard-to-find accessories and cash to the winners.
“It’s a great community that I actually like hanging out with,” said Andrew Graver, 21, who was eliminated in the first round. “Some people go to bars, but, I don’t know. It’s vape life. These are my buddies here.”
Twenty-eight people signed up for Friday’s faceoff, where the prizes included $1,000 in cash.
Each contestant used a special atomizer, or “atty,” paired with a “mechanical mod,” the handle that holds the batteries that power the atomizer. Inside the atomizers are tightly wrapped heating coils and tufts of cotton, which are soaked with the “e-juice” that is vaporized by the heat.
Users repetitively dabbed the cotton with the juice, which comes in an array of flavors. The flavor of the evening Friday was called “Evil Empire,” which had a berry-gelato aroma.
After screwing the cap of the atomizer on, and lining up back-to-back, contestants pressed a button at the bottom of their devices, igniting the coils. Then they sucked in the vapor, pursed their lips, and blew the funnel clouds into the air.
“You’re trying to blow the biggest cloud that you can blow,” said Aleksey J. Goldsmith, 23, co-owner of DeJa Vapes.
Users like Tenney, who took home the cash prize, practice in the weeks leading up to competitions. Tenney said he records himself inhaling and exhaling from his vaporizer to gauge the density and distance of his clouds.
A truck driver who used to smoke two packs of cigarettes per day, Tenney said he started vaping two years ago to quit smoking. Now, it’s less about the nicotine, and more about a shared passion with close acquaintances.
“We are all just kind of friendly with each other. We all know we are going to see each other here. It’s like hanging out with friends. It’s a good time,” Tenney said.
While “Cloud Chasers” come to compete, and others just watch, still others use the gatherings as a place to practice tricks. Using their hands and the clouds their devices produce, tricksters pucker their lips to create “jelly fish” — rings of vapor with squiggly frills extending from the base — and other shapes.
Carson Perkins, who goes to Lasell College in Newton, blew “O-rings” into the air before pushing them skyward with his hand.
“There’s a lot of creativity to it,” he said. “People go all out.”
The events, which are held monthly across New England, have also become a place for vapers to organize to protect their hobby from government control.
In September, Attorney General Maura Healey filed new regulations on e-cigarettes and similar products. The regulatory framework includes nixing the sale of the devices to minors, prohibiting promotional giveaways of e-juice at shops, and requiring child resistant packaging on such products, all of which vapers at Friday’s event seemed to agree with.
But her office also cited the growth of the e-cigarette market as a serious public health risk, since little is known about the effects the vapors have on the body.
At a federal level, the US Food and Drug Administration is mulling its own proposals that small businesses making and selling vaping products fear could hinder operations. Nothing has yet been finalized. But vapers are already fighting back.
“We all quit smoking for a reason — we all wanted to make our lives better. Get out there and tell them: We vape, we vote. It’s that simple,” said Mike Healey, of Salem, who urged attendees at the event to contact the White House to fight regulations.
Until the law changes, users will continue to fiddle with their vaporizers, and attend events that bring them closer together.
“This is our family; these people here right now, they are our brothers and sisters,” said Healey. “That’s what the government doesn’t understand. We have such tight ties with each other.”