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While many have heard the phrase “Vape Nation” in a comical context (h3h3Productions 2016), electronic-cigarettes (e-cigarettes) are also use as a form subcultural identity creation and sharing. E-cigarettes are devices made to create an aerosol containing nicotine that can then be inhaled (Keane, Weir, Fraser, and Gartner 2017).

Two women are shown blowing clouds of smoke into the air with their backs to each other. Behind them is a large crowd of people.
Cloud Competition. Image by Google.

E-cigarettes hit the market in 2007, and by 2013 sales reached $1 billion in the United States (Sussman, Garcia, Cruz, Baezconde-Garbanati, Pentz, and Unger 2014: 2). In 2014, global sales reached an astronomical $6.5 billion (Euromonitor International 2015). It was not until 2014 that the FDA provided specific regulations for the use and sale of e-cigarettes (Gostin and Glasner 2014: 595). These regulations included creating a specific age individuals must be in-order to purchase these products, eliminating free samples at vape shops, and regulating the labels of bottles of e-cigarette liquid etc. (Gostin and Glasner 2014: 595). This was done mostly due to the dramatic increase in the number of high schoolers using electronic cigarettes. Between 2011 and 2012, the percentage of vaping high schoolers more than doubled (Gostin and Glasner 2014:596). This could be considered the beginning and the rise of the vaping subculture. As vaping culture has emerged its relative shape, actions, and ideology are consistent with the definition of a subculture. According the Haenfler, a subculture is defined as “a relatively diffuse social network having a shared identity, distinctive meanings around certain ideas, practices, and objects, and a sense of marginalization from or resistance to a perceived ‘conventional’ society (2014:6). Vaping has created a community of shared identity and stigma, a subcultural.

Generations of E-Cigs and Normal Cigs
The generations of e-cigarettes. Image by

Historical Context

Since their arrival in 2007 e-cigarettes have changed, expanded, and become more efficient. The first “generation” of e-cigarettes were called “cigalikes.” These were meant to look as much like the traditional cigarette as possible. There were many drawbacks to these, as the batteries were small, and often could not be recharged and they component holding the nicotine could not be refilled. The second “generation” of e-cigarettes resembled pens. These devices had larger, rechargeable batteries, refillable tanks for nicotine liquid, and the parts could be replaced, thus they lasted longer. The third and most recent “generation” of e-cigarettes are much larger, have even bigger batteries, and are almost completely customizable. Vapers can decide how much power the device uses, and build their e-cigarette as they see fit (Farsalinos, Romagna, Tsiapras, Kyrzopoulos, and Voudris, 2014).

The third generation of e-cigarettes is what is most commonly associated with vaping subculture. Forums, blogs, websites, and Youtube channels began to appear in the early 2010s all about vaping. People, mostly men, exchange knowledge of how to build the best e-cigarette, explain tricks that can be done with the vapor, and explain what the best materials to use are in these mediums. Some people go so far as to make their own flavored nicotine liquid for vaping (Keane, Weir, Fraser, and Gartner 2016). The question then becomes is this really a subculture?

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Is it a Subculture?

Sharing Identity

individual vapes
Vaping a second generation e-cigarette. Image by Google.

The vaping subculture meets the first criteria, “a relatively diffuse social network having a shared identity” (Haenfler 2014:6) in whole. In Norway, the vaping subculture is pretty well defined and individuals have been put into two different categories within the group as a whole: “The Cloud Chasers” and “The Substitutes” (Tolke and Lund 2018). The “Cloud Chasers” defined vaping as a “performance based hobby,” “political,” and a way of “offering a feeling of community” (Tolke and Lund 2018). These were the authentic members of the vaping community, while the unauthentic members were defined as “The Substitutes” defined vaping as a “healthy” alternative to smoking and a way to reduce the stigma of  their nicotine addiction (Tolke and Lund 2018). This same social identity can be found in other places across the globe, such as Los Angeles. Vape shop owners in L.A. commonly believe their shops to be places for socializing, especially with fellow vapers (Tsai, Bluthenthal, Allem, Garcia, Garcia, Unger, Baezconde-Garbanati, and Sussman 2016). While they may not identify with the label “Cloud Chaser” they still see vaping as a socializing activity and one that creates community. Thus, the vaping subculture is “a relatively diffuse social network having a shared identity” (Haenfler 2014:6).

Meaning Making

A while man is showing blowing rings of smoke into the air. Only the lower half of his face is visible.
Blowing O’s. Image by Google.

Not only do member of the vaping community have shared identity, but they construct meaning out of the activities, ideas, and objects they interact with, within the community. For example, some members of the group participate in vape competitions where they compete to see who can make the biggest cloud (Vapor Dynasty Expo 2015) or can do the coolest tricks (Vape Capital 2016using the vapor from their electronic cigarette (Mickle 2015). And these events are not rare. This competitions happen across the United States and the globe. To many, producing a cloud of smoke that is 6ft long versus 5ft long is not a big deal, but to the “Cloud Chasers” this can be huge. Those who create larger clouds, are able to move up the social ladder within the community. They tie themselves the activity and construct meaning within their vaping community. These competitions also showcase those vapers who are experienced and are able to make their own “mods.” “Mods”, short for modifications, are e-cigarettes that have been custom built by the vaper. The often feature unique coil wrappings (the object that is heated up) and rare types of cotton (to hold the e-cigarette liquid) (McQueen, Tower, and Sumner 2011). This process can be hard, and those who have constructed “cooler” mods, are often seen as more authentic. Thus, “mods” and vaping competitions become places where users construct meaning and identity.

Marginalization and Moral Panic

A black rectangular vape is show, called a JUUL, with a charger and multiply nicotine pods strung about.
JUUL. Image by

The last requirement for a subculture is that they experience some sort of marginalization or are resisting culture norms. “Cloud Chasers” definitely feel this marginalization due to restrictions by the federal government and being the center of jokes on the internet and social media. As mentioned previously, e-cigarettes have been targeted by the FDA and continue to be targeted today. The FDA wants to regulate how to use, what to use, and who can use electronic cigarettes (Moody 2018; Gostin and Glasner 2014; Kenkel 2016). Those within the community are quick to push back and resist these changes, likely due to the identities formed within this culture. Many of those within the community disperse petitions for the FDA, and try to show people that the FDA is on the side of big tobacco and do not want the electronic cigarette market to take over tobacco (Moody 2018). Users also believe that vaping causes no harm and is much better than tobacco (Goniewicz, Lingas, and Hajek 2013), so they feel as though a healthy option is being taken away from them. Alongside this resistance to government regulations on vaping are those who use vaping as a meme, or an insult. On Twitter and Twitch (a video game streaming service), people commonly use claims that someone vapes or is a member of “Vape Nation” as an insult (Seering, Kraut, and Dabbish 2017;  Martinez, Hughes, Wash-Buhi, and Tsou 2018). Thus, these two examples show that the vaping community faces, or believes, that they face a sort of marginalization and challenge to their lifestyle.

Vaping has also been labelled as an “epidemic” (Fox 2018; CBS 2018). Principals at various high schools report that vaping in school is becoming a problem “It’s rampant among our high school and middle-school-age population” (Fox 2018). Students are described as “congregating in the bathrooms of schools to using e-cigarettes (Fox 2018).The FDA is going so far as to threaten to pull products off of the market because of the believed increase in youth vaping (Fox 2018; CBS 2018). These described epidemic has one of the large marketers of being a moral panic, where “experts” are making the claims on live new television (Fox 2018; Haenfler 2014). This again, is another sign of marginalization from the existing “normal” culture.

The vaping community has a response for every category of requirement for being a subculture, yet the literature is lacking. There is no totally encompassing sociological analysis of identity formation, perceptions of self, and the social (not just health) benefits to being a part of the vaping community. This is where I would like to fill in the holes.

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If you were to do a quick search on google for vape competitions, festivals, and expos, you would find that many images sport women as a way to promote their event. In a survey I conducted in 2018, I found that only about 10 percent of the respondents identified as women. Men predominately make up the vaping community, while women are used as objects to attract other men to events.


The advent of vaping has transcended global boundaries. Some of the evidence of this is that studies in places like Stockholm have shown how meaning making of vaping has been the same there as it is in the United States. “Substitutes” and “Cloud Chasers” are globally recognized terms. We also see vaping competitions that happen at the global level. Vapes being produced from one country to the next (Tolke and Lund 2018).

Vaping is available internationally and has become popular due to the large tobacco smoking population across the globe. Mass production in China has also allowed for prices of vapes to drop, so that countries with a larger lower socioeconomic class have been able to afford this tobacco substitute (Barboza 2014). There has also been a larger representation of vaping in mass media that can be consumed throughout the globe. Movies like Logan and tv shows like American Horror Story have shown characters using these devices as a way of showing the future. So, vaping becomes associated with the future.

Locally, some terms may have more meaning than others. In the Stockholm study there was no mention of flavor chasers which appears to be a term unique to just the United States (Tolke and Lund 2018). The United States has also had a larger push back against vaping. The FDA has pushed for larger regulations of flavors and private company management. Finally, we see that at the most local level individual populations of vapers may be different. The vaping in small populations appears to have a larger older population, while the global population seems to be a lot younger(Fox 2018; CBS 2018).

Moral Panic

As mentioned previously, the news is buzzing with the idea that vaping is taking over. Many believe that advertisements from companies, such as JUUL, are targeted at a younger audience. “Experts” fear that this will cause an increase in the number of teenagers who are nicotine dependent(Fox 2018; CBS 2018).

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Vape Life Documentary – Episode 1 Smoking and Tobacco Addiction (2014).

title image of Vape Life Documentary
Vape Life Documentary. Image by YouTube.

A documentary on vaping and the culture of vaping with many face-to-face interviews with vapers.

A Billion Lives (2016).

This documentary shed light on why the government and large industry may not want e-cigarettes to catch on.

Beyond the Cloud (2016).

Beyond the Cloud (2016).

Beyond the cloud is a French documentary on vaping culture apart from just the use of e-cigarettes.

E-Cigarettes: Welcome Back, Big Tobacco – the fifth estate (2016).

A documentary on the connection between big tobacco and the e-cigarette industry.

The REAL Vape Nation (2017).

The YouTuber who released the comical video of Vape Nation, talks with people who identify as members of the Vape Nation.

Clearing the Air on E-Cigarettes (2018).

A CBS Sunday Morning special on the believed epidemic of vaping in the United States.


A cloud competition at the 2015 Vapor Dynasty Expo in Phoenix, Arizona.

A vape trick competition at the 2016 Vape Capital expo in Miami, Florida

News Stories

Is Teen Vaping Really an Epidemic? These Experts Say Yes (2018).

FDA Calls Teen Vaping an “Epidemic” Threatens to Pull Products off the Market (2018).

Take a Deep Breath if You Want to Try Competitive Vaping: Using E-Cigarettes, Contestants Vie to Create Biggest ‘Clouds’; Sponsors, Cash Prizes (2015).



A website completely dedicated to vaping subculture. The website includes links such as: “News”, “Reviews”, and “Vape Life.”


A forum that many vapers use to exchange knowledge, participate in authenticity challenges, and to find other people within the subculture across the world.

Vape Blogs

The 25 blogs that people in the vaping community should follow about vaping.

Vaping YouTubes

Top 25 vaping Youtube channels.

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Significant Scholarship


Haenfler, Ross. 2014. Subcultures: The Basics. New York, NY: Routledge.

A guide to sociological concepts of subcultures.

HowExpert Press and James Hale. 2016. Vaping 101: History of Vaping. CreateSpace Independent. Publishing Platform.

A history of the rise of vaping and a guide to vaping.

Provario, Melvin. 2014. Vape Mania: A Newbie’s Guide to the Evil’s of the Electronic Cigarette. Vaporacle.

A comedic fiction of the perils of vaping.


Gostin, Lawrence O. and Aliza Y. Glasner. 2014. “E-Cigarettes, Vaping, and Youth.” JAMA 312(6):595-596.

This article talks about the different statistics for youth using e-cigarettes.

Keane, Helen, Weier, Megan, Fraser, Doug, and Coral Gartner. 2016. “‘Anytime, Anywhere’: Vaping as Social Practice.” Critical Public Health 27(4):465-476.

This is an article exploring the use of vaping as a social phenomenon.

Martinez, Lourdes S., Hughes, Sharon, Wash-Buhi, Eric R., and Ming-Hsiang Tsou. 2018. “‘Okay, We Get It. You Vape’: An Analysis of Geocoded Content, Context, and Sentiment regarding E-Cigarettes on Twitter.” Journal of Health Communication: International Perspective 23(6):550-562.

This is a piece on the stigmatization of vapers.

McQueen, Amy, Tower, Stephanie, and Walton Sumner. 2011. “Interviews with ‘Vapers’:  Implications for Future Research With Electronic Cigarettes.” Nicotine and Tobacco Research: 13(9):860-867.

This is an article on how vapers see themselves and how shop owners see them.

Moody, Brooke A. 2018. “Reactions to FDA E-Cigarette Regulation: How Vape Shops in Different Socioeconomic Areas of Kentucky use Facebook.” College of Arts & Sciences Senior Honors Theses, University of Louisville.

This is an article on how vapers feel about FDA regulation.

Sussman, Steve Y., Garcia, Robert, Cruz, Tess Boley, Baezconde-Garbanati, Lourdes, Pentz, Mary Ann, and Jennifer B. Unger. 2014. “Consumers’ perceptions of vape shops in Southern California: an analysis of online Yelp reviews.” Tobacco Induced Diseases 12(1):22-32.

This is an article on how vape shops are viewed.

Tokle, Rikke and Karl Lund. 2018 “‘Cloud Chasers’ and ‘Substitutes’: E-cigarettes, Vaping Subculture, and Vaping Identity.” Norwegian Institute of Public Health, Norway.

This is an article on identity formation in vapers.

Tsai, Jennifer Y., Bluthenthal, Ricky, Allem, Jon-Patrick, Garcia, Robert, Garcia, Jocelyn, Unger, Jennifer, Baezconde-Garbanati, Lourdes, and Steve Y. Sussman. 2016. “Vape Shop Retailers’ Perceptions of their Customers, Products and Services: A Content Analysis.” Tobacco Prevention and Cessation 2(Supp).

This is an article on how vape shops are viewed.

Other Scholarship

Barboza, David. 2014. “The New Smoke: China’s E-Cigarette Boom Lacks Oversight for Safety.” New Work Times. Retrieved from (

Farsalinos, Konstantinos E., Romagna, Giorgio, Tsiapras, Dimitris, Kyrzopoulos, Stamatis, and Vassilis Voudris. 2014. “Characteristics, Perceived Side Effects and Benefits of Electronic Cigarette Use.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 11(4):4356-4373.

Goniewicz, Maciej L., Lingas, Elena O., and Peter Hajek. 2013. “Patterns of Electronic Cigarette Use and User Beliefs about Their Safety and Benefits: An Internet Survey.” Drug and Alcohol Review 32(2):133-140.

Kenkel, Donald S. 2016. “Healthy Innovation: Vaping, Smoking, and Public Policy.” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 35(2):473-479.

King, Brian A., Christopher M. Jones, Grant T. Baldwin and Peter A. Briss. 2020. “The EVALI and Youth Vaping Epidemics — Implications for Public Health.” The New England Journal of Medicine 382(8):689-691.

Miech, Richard, Lloyd Johnston, M. O’Malley Patrick, Jerald G. Bachman and Megan E. Patrick. 2019. “Trends in Adolescent Vaping, 2017–2019.” The New England Journal of Medicine 381(15):1490-1491.

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