Beyond Nicotine: The #VapeLife Trap Ensnaring Malaysian Youths

Vaping is not just about nicotine addiction, but the trap of #VapeLife for Malaysian youths. Three young adults explain how they switched from conventional to e-cigarettes, vaping for years due to flavours and the vaping lifestyle.

KUALA LUMPUR, June 9 — Amir, a 27-year-old self-proclaimed “promoter of vape”, says vaping helped him to quit smoking and that he now mainly vapes in social settings.

Amir got into vaping three years ago after the pandemic dried up his supply of Gudang Garam and Surya contraband cigarettes, and his friends persuaded him to try e-cigarettes, telling him that he smoked too much. 

“Compared to cigarettes, I occasionally vape. When I’m at an event or when I’m with a friend, I vape. In a month, I vape four or five times because it depends on the event, or if I’m with a friend,” Amir, who only wanted to provide his first name, told CodeBlue.

Amir, who began smoking cigarettes at age 13, said that he doesn’t really vape at home.  

“I can quit anyhow, anywhere, right now,” the 27-year-old declared.

The 2023 DKECE: International E-Cigarettes Exhibitions Vape Show held at a hotel in the capital city last May 13, where CodeBlue had interviewed Amir, was full of youths trying new e-cigarette flavours and products touted by e-cigarette manufacturers, whose salesmen and saleswomen were mostly young adults themselves.

Comprising mainly ethnic Chinese and Malay vapers, the crowd flocked to the vendors, like shoppers at a night market. Only, instead of the scent of brine, sweat, and dirt, the air was tinted with a gauzy silver mist and the cloying scent of sugar.

Young women in groups of threes or twos flitted from booth to booth, perusing the plethora of vape flavours and devices much like they would the aisles of Sephora. Pausing every now and then to try a product or to make an inquiry, they toured the vape expo collecting free samples and taking pictures.

The men, on the other hand, could be found in pairs talking, sometimes heatedly, about the various devices and offerings. They came, they tried, and they debated, occasionally stopping to snag a picture with an influencer or two. 

Many former smokers turned vapers that CodeBlue spoke to at the vape expo reiterated Amir’s sentiments. They constantly said that they can give up vaping “whenever” or “anytime” they want to, all while clutching onto a vape or taking occasional puffs from a vape. 

Vape retailers and manufacturers also claim that people can quit vaping anytime they want, even though nicotine is a highly addictive substance. Some even tell customers that nicotine addiction is something that can be delayed if they don’t vape while they are flustered and if they only vape when they are relaxed, or “relak santai,” as the retailer put it. 

Amir’s account about vaping with friends illustrates the dangerous draw of e-cigarettes to young people as a lifestyle – with the hashtag #VapeLife commonly found across social media platforms – beyond the physiological addiction of nicotine.

Vape manufacturers openly say that they design their products to look cool and trendy in targeting young adults in their 20s and 30s. 

A TikTok account dedicated to helping people quit vaping called quitwithjones has uploaded a multitude of street interviews in America asking youths about their perceptions of vaping and their vaping habits.

Numerous interview subjects stated that they saw vaping as a harmful trend and that they have friends who vape, which leads them to vape at parties and because of peer pressure. 

The peer pressure and social aspect of vaping in Malaysia parallels that of cigarette initiation. Amir told CodeBlue that he had started smoking because of peer pressure, and for him, the same holds true for other Malay youths. 

“If we want to talk about vape, it is a universal thing, but if we say Malay, totally I’m going to say even underage Malay has already started vaping,” Amir said.

“Smoking culture is normally caused by pengaruhan rakan sebaya (peer influence/pressure). Like me, my friend introduced me [to cigarettes].” 

Last June 3, World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged Malaysia and other countries to regulate e-cigarettes and vape, after the Malaysian government legalised nicotine vape without any existing regulations following the declassification of liquid nicotine from the Poisons Act 1952. 

The WHO chief described vape as a “trap” that uses the “cool” factor to recruit children and get them hooked for life, dismissing the harm reduction narrative by the tobacco industry. 

Although Amir appears to be aware of the harm reduction argument being used to convert new people to vape, he still believes that vaping has benefited him, but cautions people to be intentional before they start on e-cigarettes.

“Only, if you guys smoke the correct brand, you guys know what you want with vape, you guys are safe. But if you main hisap, you want to try, try, try, it is a never-ending cycle like smoking. So, you cannot be fooled by vape. Vape, actually, for the long term is going to be harmful for you guys,” Amir said.

The 27-year-old, as of the writing of this article, vapes e-liquids that contain 50mg per ml of nicotine and enjoys the Yakult flavour, a trendy sweetened probiotic milk beverage flavour that has taken the Malaysian market by storm. 

“Yakult does give you good germs in your body,” said Amir. “I really like this Yakult for its sweetness. I’m not into creamy [flavours] because I don’t want to feel the harshness because it reminds me of smoking.”

He said nicotine gum – a smoking cessation pharmaceutical product – does not help wean smokers off cigarettes as it does not taste good. 

“All of this cannot work because you want to eat something that is sweet. You need something sweet. Malaysians are sweet. Their smiles are sweet, their speech is sweet and even the food is sweet.”

‘I Vape For Work Because I Can’t Drink Coffee’

While Amir holds the facetious belief that Yakult-flavoured vape may contain probiotics for healthy digestion, another former chain smoker turned vaper, Azafireiara, said she vapes because it gives her a caffeine and nicotine hit.

Working as a bodyguard cum driver, Azafireiara told CodeBlue that vaping is the only viable option for her for she is not allowed to smoke while on the job. She likes coffee-flavoured e-liquids as the caffeine keeps her awake; it’s difficult to drink coffee while driving.

“I started vape in 2020. I switched a long time to vape from smoking six packs of cigarettes. Now, in one day, I vape one pod over two to three days,” Azafireiara, who only gave her first name, said at the vape expo.

“My favourite flavours are coffee, banana, vanilla. But I’ll pick coffee because when I drive VVIPs (very very important persons), I will not feel sleepy. This vape has coffee.”

The brand that Azafireiara uses to get her nicotine and caffeine hits is nanoSTIX. The nanoSTIX pods come in the standard 2ml and is 50mg of nicotine per ml, meaning Azafireiara vapes 100mg of nicotine in the span of two to three days. 

Although an apparent reduction from the 120mg worth of nicotine that comes with smoking six packs of cigarettes (each pack typically contains 20mg of nicotine), Azafireiara is at risk of actually vaping more than 120mg.

Based on the nanoSTIX website, the company uses nic salts in their pods, allowing them to fill each pod with the “equivalent of 40 cigarettes worth of nicotine”. NanoSTIX, at the time of writing, offers two coffee flavours: coffee and coffee hazelnut. 

Like with all vape brands, the company does not specifically list the ingredients present in their coffee flavours. In fact, the company’s website does not even have an ingredient list detailing what goes into their e-liquids. 

As vape manufacturers do not list the ingredients they use, beyond vague terms such as “natural and artificial flavours”, “food flavours”, “natural and food grade artificial flavours”, and so on, it is difficult to know what actually is in the e-liquid. 

A Channel News Asia (CNA) investigation found there to be ingredients not disclosed in the ingredient label of vape liquids. One of the chemicals found by CNA was acetaldehyde, a carcinogen that can increase the addictive effects of nicotine.  

On Zero-Nicotine, But Still Vaping Because of Flavours

Shasha Morningstar (her social media handle) is a 30-year-old former smoker who has successfully accomplished the zero-nicotine gauntlet, but still vapes as she enjoys the flavours. 

Shasha, who has been vaping for six years since 2017, told CodeBlue in an interview that she swapped over to vaping because she wanted to quit smoking. Her friends had introduced her to nanoSTIX vapes to help her quit conventional cigarettes after she first started smoking in 2013. 

“I started vaping since the first pod was released from nanoSTIX. Previously, I was a smoker, so I want to cut my smoking habit. My friends introduced me to nanoSTIX. But nanoSTIX is a little troublesome because it does not have the same high nicotine levels as cigarettes, so it is a little difficult and the flavours are limited,” she said.

“After that, I was introduced to other pods and other flavours, so from there I started vaping instead of smoking.

“Since 2017 until now, I kicked nicotine. I tried [cigarettes again], but I feel like I cannot anymore. Cigarettes also, there is a cold type, but I can’t smoke that now. For me, freebase is empty (no nicotine), but for the girls, we are more to flavours. 

“So, for me, in the beginning, definitely there is a [nicotine] percent. From 120mg, I lowered it, lowered it, lowered it to 30mg, and then I try flavours, like fully flavour and then I got hooked. So if I go back to nicotine, when I vape, I feel my throat becomes painful and hard, so I cannot already,” said Shasha. 

Having successfully kicked nicotine, Shasha is still not off the hook when it comes to the health complications that could come with vaping. 

Medical News Today states that although vaping without nicotine prevents nicotine dependence, there are many other chemicals in e-liquids that have toxic effects on the body.

Citing a 2012 laboratory study, the news site stated that the toxic effects are caused by the chemicals that are used to flavour e-liquids. And a 2015 study showed that the heating of propylene glycol and glycerol in e-liquids creates compounds that release formaldehyde, which can lead to cancer with repeated exposure.  

There is a difference between smoking and vaping, said Shasha, referring to the differences that exist between the sexes when it comes to smoking. 

According to Shasha, women tend to smoke cigarettes socially and to release stress, whereas men smoke while they work and seem to smoke all the time. 

“For women, after eating, we will smoke, but for men, it is every time. So when they cut cigarettes, they will think it is impossible. It is like they (men and cigarettes) are bound together, so it is a little different. 

“For women, we still can quit, and then we can try a different flavour because a majority of the women who were smokers switched to pod (vape); there are also those who have not smoked but vape pods.”

Based on Shasha’s experience with vaping, it appears that nicotine is only half of the vaping issue and that flavours are its own form of addiction. 

In a study titled “The Role of Flavors in Vaping Initiation and Satisfaction Among U.S. Adults” published in 2019 in the Addictive Behaviours Journal, researchers found that 62.9 per cent of e-cigarette users in America used flavoured e-liquids and reported greater satisfaction and self-perceived addiction, compared to users of non-flavoured e-cigarettes.

In addition to self-perceived addiction, the article held that flavours are a significant motivator for young adults aged 18 to 24 to initiate vaping. 

Therefore, while Shasha has gotten rid of nicotine, she could still be hooked on not only the plethora of chemicals used to create the flavours, but also the act of vaping itself.

According to the Queensland state government’s Quit HQ website, certain habits make it hard to give up the act of smoking and vaping. Therefore, if an individual tends to smoke after a meal, the brain will remember that pattern and create a craving for a cigarette after a meal. 

Unlike conventional cigarettes (of which only 1 per cent of adult Malaysian women smoke), data from the latest National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) 2022 revealed a significant increase in the prevalence of e-cigarette and vape use amongst female secondary school students in Malaysia aged 13 to 17. 

About 6.2 per cent of Malaysian adolescent females in 2022 reported vaping, nearly four times higher than the 1.7 per cent cigarette smoking rate in this group.

Across gender, the prevalence of current e-cigarette or vape use among Malaysian youths rose from 9.8 per cent in 2017 to 14.9 per cent in 2022.

Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa has promised to table the Control of Smoking Product for Public Health Bill 2023, a tobacco and vape control bill, in the Dewan Rakyat next Monday for first reading.

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