A Juul pod is not an e-cigarette is not a vape pen is not a mod.
Ask any serious vaper, but then, what kind of vaper to ask? There are the nicotine casuals and those drawn to THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. There are the hobbyists with all their sub-genres: do-it-yourselfers, cloud chasers, sub-ohmers, coil builders and other device modifiers, called moders, not to mention vape lifestyle models and social media influencers.
Finding your tribe among vapers is more complex than finding your Hogwarts house.
On blogs, Instagram and online forums such as Reddit, the various types of vapers — interested as they are in vastly different things — don’t agree on how or if vaping might be regulated, what exactly should be regulated or even who should be prevented from vaping. There you’ll find members of the DIY clan sharing recipes for flavored e-liquids, how-to guides and links to instructional YouTube videos to help newcomers who worry politicians will act to further restrict vaping.
Jennifer Winstead, 47, a fraud analyst in North Carolina, is one of them. She is an e-juice mixologist, which means she takes vegetable glycerin and propylene glycol and adds any number of flavorings, with or without nicotine, to concoct unique blends like cherry berry or strawberry coconut milk. She contracts out her mixing skills to companies, selling recipes for her e-liquid mixes. You cannot buy e-liquids from her directly.
“DIYers are research gurus. We don’t want to hurt ourselves,” said Winstead, who takes a pull from her mod after completing each thought. “Nothing with oil or organic matter should be in it.”
She used three devices, each delivering a different type of vapor hit. One was a high-power sub-ohm device that delivers a low dose of nicotine in a “full-lung hit” of her strawberry milk e-liquid. Sub-ohm devices produce larger amounts of vapor for more potent hits of e-liquid. (More about sub-ohm devices in a moment. That’s the specialty of moders.)
The second device performs more like a cigarette, with tight draws that deliver higher nicotine doses with a mint chocolate chip e-liquid. The third delivers even lower nicotine doses “for that hand-to-mouth fixation without getting nicked out,” she said. She paired that with a peach mango e-liquid.
“Rotating flavors is key for me to be satisfied and stay off cigs. It’s not all about the nicotine,” she said.
Winstead said she quit smoking cigarettes using a grape mint flavor, but her most popular recipe is her strawberry coconut milk. She sells the recipes to her e-juices overseas for between $500 and $1,500, depending on the size of the manufacturer buying them.
She thinks any prohibition in the United States will further fuel the drive for vapers to create their own flavors, and using the wrong ingredients — like flavorings intended for food — could cause more harm.
Members of the DIY community are not anti-regulation, just anti-prohibition, said Wayne Walker, 29, of Philadelphia. Walker is a small-business owner. He creates e-liquid flavor concentrates for sale and runs the site diyordievaping.com. His customers have to mix the flavor concentrate with propylene glycol and/or vegetable glycerin before they can vape.
“The DIY e-mixing community is a lot closer to bartending than chemistry. You’re taking pre-made ingredients and mixing them to make your own flavor profile,” said Walker. His signature mix is called “Rhodonite,” a mix of raspberry, apple and macaron flavors. He said he “meshed the three together to be experienced in a way through only your senses of smell. That’s the genius behind e-liquid mixing.”
“I’ve been doing this for five years. Even if the U.S. did ban flavors across the board, I could still sell in the U.K.,” he added. As with others interviewed for this article, the vaping was constant throughout the interview. He paused to take a pull from his mod, releasing a silky plume of vapor into the space around him.
Aaron Evans, 41, a vaping DIYer from Washington, D.C., said vaping is helping him kick the cigarette habit. “I started smoking cigarettes when I was 11 years old. I smoked cigarettes for 28 years.” Evans used to be a coil builder, though he now considers himself a “flavor chaser.”
A coil builder modifies a vaping device to change the amount of vapor or the intensity of it. Inside a vaping device is a battery that heats up a metal coil. The heated coil creates the vapor when it touches the e-liquid sucked up through the wicking material. Moders adjust the size and shape of the coil, the wattage of the battery (that’s the sub-ohm part) or the temperature of the coil to affect the quantity of the vapor — important to cloud chasers — and the intensity of the flavorings — important to the flavor chasers. Less electrical resistance means higher coil temperatures and more vapor. They even experiment with the wicking material that brings the flavorings to the coil.
This isn’t a cheap hobby, and it’s not for the casual e-cigarette user. A high-end, fully customized vape mod can range in price from a couple of hundred dollars to a few thousand, such as the $3,000 Otto Carter vape mod.
Evans, the flavor chaser, was first introduced to vaping when he saw a woman using a device outside of a Washington Metro station in 2017. She pointed him to a nearby vape store, where the vendor helped him purchase and set up his first mod kit, a brand called SMOK.
He was given an e-liquid containing 3 milligrams of nicotine in a tobacco flavor. The dosage wasn’t strong enough, and he went back to cigarettes. It wasn’t until Evans went online that he discovered he could make his own e-liquid with the flavor and nicotine strength of his choosing.
“I’ll never forget the company name. It was called Naked, and the flavor was some kind of pineapple orange juice,” he said.
His love for flavors led him to research how to enhance the flavors and to explore rebuildable tank atomizers and coil building. Coils can be made out of steel, titanium, nickel or an iron-chromium-aluminum material called Kanthal, and each heats differently.
“It’s like an art form when people make them,” said Evans. “If you look at them up close, they are very beautiful the way they are twisted.”
Despite the hobby’s expense, Evans estimated that he has saved close to $6,000 in the past 20 months by switching from cigarettes to e-liquids. He uses the mobile app Quit It Lite to track his cigarette spending. He is now down to 3 milligrams of nicotine in his e-liquids and plans to zero out soon and could stop vaping entirely.
“Thanks for talking to me. I’m about to go hit my mod,” Evans said as he walked to a spot outside the NoMa-Gallaudet U-New York Avenue Metro station and pulled out his mod and e-liquid of choice, a 7 Daze Reds Apple Juice in a mentholated grape flavor.
This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.