The YouTube video shows two young men sitting in front of a computer screen, enthralled by what they’re watching and pausing, periodically, to marvel at it. They stare as a demonlike character — it resembles something from the costumed metal band Gwar — screams and tries to shred on its guitar. The backdrop behind it shuffles through a series of apocalyptic images: a swirling orange inferno, a black-and-white mushroom cloud, a bunch of explosions. An oil refinery belches smoke as the monster holds a microphone close to his face: “Tons of corrupt filth we keep tossin’,” it belts out, “sending Earth to hell in a pod-shaped coffin.”
The two young men can’t contain their laughter. What they’re joyfully scrutinizing is a public-service announcement by Truth, an anti-nicotine initiative known for making didactic pleas aimed at teenagers. (Its approach here is an appeal to youth environmentalism: Pollutants from discarded e-cigarette pods, they’re suggesting, are not an ideal addition to the planet.) The guys making fun of this are, naturally, of a different persuasion. One works for DashVapes, which describes itself as “Canada’s leading retailer and distributor of authentic gear and world class e-juice.” (The other is a friend.) The company produces a wide variety of YouTube clips — a handful of them now aimed at correcting what they, and other vapers, see as misinformation and paranoia coming out of the United States.
During the past year, as the so-called vaping epidemic burst into the public eye, two lines of concern peaked at the same moment: an outbreak of vaping-related illnesses and deaths, and accusations that Juul Labs targeted youth with its advertising. (Public health officials eventually connected the illnesses with tainted and illicit THC products; Juul now faces investigations and lawsuits, though it denies any wrongdoing.) Both narratives were surely helpful to organizations like Truth and the Michael Bloomberg-funded Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which are focused on abstinence: They essentially consider vapes to be cigarettes in modern form, allowing big tobacco to hook a new generation on nicotine just as youth smoking rates hit an all-time low.
But as those news stories received more attention — and as political figures pushed for knee-jerk regulatory fixes — a community of vapers was mobilized as well, propelled by its most digitally savvy proponents: popular YouTubers and video bloggers like GrimmGreen and Matt Culley and Ryan Hall. They couldn’t have expected such an intense spotlight to turn their way. But as cities and states across the country began agreeing with advocates and banning many flavored vaping products, their niche culture was pulled from obscurity and forced to adapt.
Vapers tend to fall into two sometimes-overlapping camps. The younger one includes online influencers, who have been the subject of countless documentaries and news articles — though their social stock plummeted in December, after Instagram disallowed branded content that promoted vaping. Older vapers, however, are different. They tend to see the practice as a more healthful alternative to cigarettes; it’s how, they insist, they have stopped smoking. “Vaping isn’t a lifestyle,” goes one common refrain. “It’s life or death.” It’s these ex-smokers who have grown into a sizable, vocal and largely Republican and libertarian coalition — and who, like the hosts at DashVapes, have become de facto political advocates for the technology. They have held rallies outside state capitol buildings and the White House. Some have been talking heads on news channels. In the fall, they popularized the slogan “We Vape, We Vote” — a warning realistic enough that it reportedly had a hand in persuading the Trump administration to back down from strong policies on vaping. Despite rumors that the administration would strip all flavored products from the market, it instead instituted a partial ban, removing only the flavored cartridges popular among teenagers; the liquids for open-tank systems, often favored by adults, would remain, and menthol received a complete pass.
One thing this faction has going for it is history: It has been blossoming for at least a decade, its members meeting at trade shows and in corners of the internet. Until recently, they were more like hobbyists than anything else, swapping stories and constructing their vaping “rigs” and “mods” with the pride of tinkering craftsmen. Many opened shops or started product lines in the hope of converting cigarette smokers to vaping — hence the nerdy sensibility of the entire cottage industry, which is full of independent stores with names like Darth Vapor. On certain levels, these advocates feel like anyone else fixated on a particular pursuit, from craft beers to classic cars. But adult vapers are often passionate evangelists for their hobby; they see it, after all, as genuinely lifesaving. And online, they are committed to moving the vaping discussion away from kids — and away from major corporate entities like Juul — and back onto onetime smokers like themselves.
As with most P.S.A.s, Truth’s is easy to ridicule. It feels clueless, dated, pandering. There are shades of the overblown approach of ’80s drug-war propaganda, like the implication that chemicals from disposable vape cartridges have an effect similar to, say, detonating a bomb. There is an assumption that kids are still into heavy metal. In the DashVapes segment, the vapers compare the P.S.A. to an online meme — an image of the aggressively middle-aged actor Steve Buscemi, in an episode of “30 Rock,” comically trying to blend in with some teenagers. It’s the very nature of P.S.A.s to be behind the curve: Youth vaping rates soared, in part, because no one with political power took note of Juul’s sleek, youthful marketing until it had already succeeded. By the time advocacy groups began to act, teenagers were already moving on, replacing their Juuls with less expensive Puff Bars — disposable flavored vapes that fall into a federal policy loophole.
These sorts of P.S.A.s made more sense when television was a primary source of entertainment. They were inescapable — if you wanted to watch TV, you had to sit through them and let their messages sink in through the sheer force of repetition. In the age of YouTube, though, they feel futile. The site already contains a substantial ecosystem of vapers, each a click away — so many that one of them, Matt Culley, has begun dividing their ranks into generations, from the no-frills Gen Xers to the Gen Zers with their quick edits and air horns. DashVapes already provides hours and hours of sleek, well-shot, authoritative vaping content. A group like Truth can no longer command the airwaves; it has to step into an environment where it is already outnumbered, one where a video of people rolling their eyes at a P.S.A. may receive more attention than the P.S.A. itself.
In early March, DashVapes had 404,000 subscribers on YouTube; Truth had 306,000. Nearly every time an anti-vaping group posts a new ad, DashVapes is there, publishing some sort of mocking takedown — groaning over its use of “Crank Yankers”-style puppets, or babies, or testimonials from teenagers. The young men doing the mocking vape the entire time. The comments below their videos usually share their opinions. Truth’s YouTube channel, on the other hand, has its comments disabled.