When the Trump administration announced Wednesday that it plans to ban most flavored e-cigarettes, Matt Culley knew within minutes that he had a job to do. He turned on the camera in his home office in northwest Montana and started a live stream that went out to 280,000 subscribers, many, if not all of them, adults who vape.
“You know, I’m always the sort of person that says, ‘Don’t freak out, don’t freak out,’ ” he said. “I mean” — the 37-year-old took a brief pause, then looked straight at the camera — “everyone should be concerned right now.”
Culley, known as Matt From SMM on YouTube, is one of dozens of American adults who have made a career producing vaping-related content. On YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and Twitch, there is an ecosystem of users who publish videos of themselves performing vape tricks (playing with the smoke that comes out from e-cigarettes), reviewing flavors and equipment, or showing users how to cook up their own vape liquids. Millions watch them every day.
In recent weeks, this community has been rocked by the national discussion around vaping, driven in part by the federal investigation of more than 450 cases of lung disease linked to e-cigarettes, including six deaths. Many of these patients have reported using cannabis cartridges, but health officials say it is too early to eliminate other types of vaping.
People such as Culley, who call themselves “vape advocates,” “vape influencers” or “professional vapers,” have feared for days that amid the highly publicized reports of these deaths, officials might respond to pressure from vape critics with a blanket ban on flavored e-cigarettes. They have worried that adult vapers — their peers, their subscribers and themselves — might become collateral damage in a debate that has focused predominantly on the negative effects of vaping on youth smokers.
On Wednesday, they said, these fears were confirmed.
“It was one of the worst days that I’ve experienced in the vaping community,” Culley said in an interview.
Matthew Elliott, a 28-year-old “vape influencer” from Long Island, said: “My first reaction was that I almost threw up. I was sick to my stomach.”
Some of these influencers, nearly all of whom turned to vaping as a means of quitting smoking, worry that without flavored e-cigarettes, they will slip back into smoking regular cigarettes, which health experts agree is more harmful than vaping. Others say that they will “figure out a way” to get their favorite flavors but that the proposed ban will probably create a wider black market for first-time users, including children. Several influencers who produce vaping-related content for a living are starting to consider alternative careers.
As of 2017, slightly fewer than 7 million adults used e-cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Professional vapers claim that this number is much higher today and that a significant percentage will turn against President Trump if he pushes the ban through.
Adults like flavors, too
Supporters of the ban say it is meant to target the growing use of e-cigarettes among teenagers who favor fruity, menthol or mint flavors. But Tony Brittan, who uploads vaping videos at Vapor Trail Channel on YouTube, says the range of flavors is also what draws many adult users away from cigarettes and toward vaping. His personal favorites are cereal- and oat-flavored liquids.
“It’s the thing that differentiates vaping from the cigarettes. After you taste some of these flavors, you won’t want the tobacco ones,” he said. “If they take the flavors away, I don’t know how I’m going to stay off the cigarettes.”
Culley said most adult vapers agree that just-tobacco liquid tastes bad; some also feel turned off by the taste because it reminds them of cigarettes.
“The youths are experimenting with these products, and frankly it’s ruining it for the rest of us,” Elliott said.
Elliott, who has worked in a vape shop and at an e-liquid company and now works full time as a professional vaper, said that if the ban goes through, he expects that he will have to find a new line of work.
“I’m going to have to go back to security or bartending,” he said. “I based the last five years of my life around this industry.”
Other influencers say they are less concerned in the short term, because they serve an international market and have developed direct relationships with companies based overseas, though they note that the future of the industry remains murky.
“Because of this anti-vaping backlash, could YouTube ban us at some point?” Culley asked. “We really don’t know.”
YouTube did not respond to inquiries asking whether it planned to change any of its rules around vaping-related content but wrote that the platform generally does not prohibit videos that show vaping unless it includes inappropriate content, including, for example, minors smoking.
Professional vapers say that their goal is not to spread smoking to children and that, based on viewership statistics, their audiences largely comprise adults. All the influencers interviewed for this report have warnings on their accounts and videos saying that their content is not designed for those below the age of 18 or 21.
Vape critics and health officials say there is a spreading epidemic of youth e-cigarette use in the country. But professional vapers say the number often cited — more than a quarter of high school students have used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days — over-represents how many teenagers are regularly using e-cigarettes. They also argue that the vaping-related deaths in recent weeks have been linked to a specific type of liquid and not to all flavored e-cigarettes.
The government’s response, they argue, has been the equivalent of “public hysteria.”
“That’s literally like if there’s a salmonella outbreak — and this happens all the time — and this comes from a specific kind of broccoli, and the FDA comes out and says: ‘You know what? Just stop eating for the next six months. Just in case,’ ” professional vaper Ryan Hall said in a video that has been watched more than 92,000 times. “It’s literally that ridiculous, what’s going on.”
A vow to #Resist
Hours after Trump announced the plans for a ban on Wednesday, a meme started circulating among vaping enthusiasts. It shows Trump with his hands up, holding two bouquets of cigarettes in each fist. Underneath, in bolded text, is the phrase, “MAKE AMERICA SMOKE AGAIN.”
Professional vapers have shared this meme widely, some using the hashtag #Resist and others writing long captions vowing to fight the ban. Vaping enthusiasts who connect online or meet at conferences held across the country every year belong to a tightknit community, in part because many bond over the experience of quitting regular cigarettes for e-cigarettes, Culley said.
“We feel like these products saved our lives,” he said. “People are super passionate about vaping, and I don’t think people outside vaping understand that.”
Elliot said just hours after the announcement that he had heard of “many people in the industry who were die-hard supporters of President Trump who have now denounced their support of him.”
“It’s kind of revolting in a sense,” said Daniel Batista, another influencer who posts on YouTube as DJLsb Vapes. “The government is lying to its citizens.”
At the Oval Office meeting Wednesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the administration is working on a plan to “clear the market” of flavored e-cigarettes that is likely to go into effect next week.
Some professional vapers such as Elliott say they intend to fight the ban until the day it is implemented. Others are less optimistic.
“People are outraged, confused, bewildered, [but] when you’re up against the government, it’s very hard to fight,” Brittan said.
At the end of his 30-minute live stream Wednesday, Culley, sitting in front of a shelf crowded with vape equipment, told viewers to keep their heads up.
“It’s tough, it’s been a [bad] couple weeks,” he said. “We just got to do everything we can and see how this all plays out.”