Medical Examiner

We Need More Words for “Vaping”

Like “teen vaping,” “virgin vaping,” and “reduction vaping.” It will help!

A vape.
Dmitry_Tishchenko/iStock/Getty Images Plus

We need more words for vape. That has become enormously clear over the past few months as we have muddled our way through vaping-associated pulmonary illness, a mysterious phenomenon in its own right, and ended up perhaps even more confused and muddled than before. “A Google News search for ‘vaping illness’ yields more than 130,000 results, many of which fail to clearly communicate the type of products implicated in the outbreak,” Jacob Grier pointed out in a recent piece for Slate. The policy responses to the vaping epidemic suffer problems that I think stem from the same cause: It’s hard to understand what people are really talking about when they talk about “vaping”! Also, it’s just hard to communicate to your friends that you have the good kind of vape.

How did we get here? The term vape first originated in the 1980s, describing, at the time, experimental versions of a “noncombustible cigarette.” The concept went from wonky projects to commercial success in the early 2000s, thanks to an inventor in China. In 2014, Oxford Dictionaries declared vape the word of the year. It was a prescient move in how widespread the concept has become. It was a bad one in that there are so many different things that can be vaped, in such a variety of legal and social contexts, that the word should not have been cemented as a single catchall. Here is an example of how this has caused problems: Vaping-associated pulmonary illnesses are almost certainly caused by the illegal vaping of black-market THC cartridges, but they have been used to justify moves to ban legal, flavored nicotine cartridges. This is not great—it’s a solution to a different problem! So if you read/are lectured about/slip into a panic over news about the “vaping epidemic,” your reflexive reaction should be “WHAT KIND OF VAPING?” And then you can educate anyone nearby about the following specific terms I have invented.

The new terms can build off of vaping—we’re kind of stuck with that as a base. But they should indicate explicitly who is vaping, and what chemicals. There’s “teen vaping,” (already in use! Good start). A subsection of teen vaping is “unlawful vaping” (as with cigarettes, it’s illegal to buy nicotine vapes if you’re under 18). Most of teen vaping is also “virgin vaping”—that is, vaping by people who have taken it up without a prior addiction to cigarettes. Adults who have never smoked prior to taking up vaping are virgin vapers too. Those who are vaping to cut down on or quit cigarettes—they’re reduction vaping. Does it sound a little unfun and clinical? Good. It is.

All the terms so far default to referring to nicotine, unless they are further modified. The subsections of vaping that involve marijuana are a little more straightforward: weed vaping and THC vaping. Weed vaping—aka good vaping—is done with what’s currently (and more formally) known as a dry herb vape. In this method, you grind up the actual plant, as you would for a joint, and then put it in a chamber in a cigar-size (or so) device that then bakes off the cannabinoids. In contrast, bona fide THC vapes, as we are now going to call them, tend to be slimmer, penlike, and use an oil cartridge or wax with concentrated THC (and maybe some CBD). These last a lot longer and are more popular than weed vapes. There are also CBD vapes (which can contain some THC). As with all pot, a substance that is in limbo, the labels can get a little more complicated from there, with prefixes medical and teen and illegal—or maybe just dark—available for each of them. Dark, in fact, can be added to any form of vaping to indicate that it is black-market.

Yes, these constructions are a little clumsy. But the problem is urgent. There’s the aforementioned ban on flavored vape cartridges. What government and health officials really want to go after is teen vaping and virgin vaping; more terms could help them figure out how to smartly leave room for reduction vapers who find the lure of mango nicotine strong enough to pry them away from cigarettes. The New York Times warns about “marijuana and vaping,” when what it’s really trying to get at is the potential danger of THC vaping, and in particular dark THC vaping. The Apple Store banned all vaping-related apps in the wake of the vaping epidemic, when there’s no health reason whatsoever to take, for example, an app that controls the temperature of a high-end weed vape off the market. Such apps would allow users to easily tweak the exact experience they’ll have—well, it would if Apple let them. More specific words could also help (a little) in holding companies that make vaping products accountable. Juul says its vape is a risk reduction tool; the company’s argument could be more convincing if it actively ran ads against virgin vaping and designed its products not as accessories for “Juuling”—a sexy, catchall, slang version of the brand name—but as bland implements for reduction vaping.

Sure, smoking, forefather of this whole category of stuff, is similarly a little ambiguous. Be more specific about smoking too, if you have the energy! There are fewer major differences there, though. Smoking is never healthy, though vaping can be, at least in comparison to smoking. But with vaping, we really need to make the effort—because of the dark THC epidemic, because the whole concept is fresher and therefore more malleable, because further research will surely reveal nuances in the risks and benefits of different kinds of vaping. While we still can, let’s render vaping a term that doesn’t make sense without context.