Monday, September 25, 2017

Chasing man-made clouds

The vaping industry is steaming ahead in Myanmar.

Puffing with style. Photo: Nyo MePuffing with style. Photo: Nyo Me

CIGARETTE smokers seriously consider taking up vaping to beat their tobacco addiction. Not the Burmese youth.

“I just want to play with the vapor,” explains 21-year-old Ye Myat who had never tried a cigarette before inhaling the fruity flavoured clouds from vaping.

Unfortunately for him, smoking and vaping have the same side-effect: “My mom yells at me when she sees me vaping.” It’s the presence of nicotine (in some liquids) and the appearance of smoke.

‘Vape City’ in Dagon Centre 2 is the first vaping store that opened in Myanmar. Okkar Kyaw, its owner, says that a lot of people come here to quit smoking cigarettes -- often male smokers, ‘encouraged’ by their wives.

Zaw Min Aung who owns Jooselyfe, an e-cigarette shop near Junction Mawtin, says that quitting is the main drive, but only for people over 25. “Teens just choose to vape instead of smoking,” he says.  “Smoking is a habit. Vaping is a lifestyle,” he adds.

The kids are in it for the look, but also for the taste.

E-juice (vaping liquid) offers a whole range of tastes, from basic flavours like menthol and chocolate, to more complex profiles like donuts and peanut butter and jelly. One shop in Yangon offers over 100 different flavour. However, the exact number of flavours -- and their configurations -- is unknown. A 2014 article from Motherboard states that there is an estimated 7700 number of flavours with numbers on the rise. Certainly the horizon of vaping in Myanmar is unexplored, if cloudless.  

No smoke without fire, aye?

The main difference between vaping and smoking is that cigarettes burn paper and tobacco after being lit up. Vaping devices, powered by high-drain batteries, heat up liquid which in turn produces vapor.

68-year-old Konrad, a German resident and long-time smoker, turned to vaping for health reasons. “I buy vape because I have to stop smoking.” He also explains that vaping helps him carry on his old habit and routine. But most importantly: “my doctor said it is okay as long as there is no nicotine.”

“I cannot guarantee vape is 100 percent okay for health”, says Zaw Min Aung behind his counter.

Tayzar Oo, who loves to smoke Myanmar’s traditional cheroot, stresses that vapers take different risks. Vape devices, he explains, can blow up in your face.

Zaw Min Aung acquiesces, “Any machine with a battery can explode if not used with care.” A dangerous reality, but this all depends on the type of device being used. Exploding batteries are common with unregulated devices (without variable wattage/voltage or protective software) that use high-drain batteries  -- 3000mAh 18650 batteries -- that become damaged or short circuit when their protective outer-layers become damaged, exposing the negative and positive connections. A piece of metal touches both connections and boom! You’re picking your teeth off of the floor.

For him, shop owners have a responsibility. “We must make sure users fully understand how vaping machines work,” he says. In most vape shops located in western countries such as the US, owners and staff have to make sure that customers are properly educated on how their products work and how to avoid explosive situations. Otherwise, it’s a liability that could damage business.

Vaping is also less costly than cigarettes on the whole, or at least for western countries where a single pack of cigarettes could cost between US$3.50 (K4770) to $13 (K17,719) per day. In contrast, a $45 100ml bottle of e-juice that could last either a whole week or a month. The financial feasibility of vaping does not exist in Myanmar’s case, where a single pack of cigarettes costs a measly average of K1000 ($0.73).  

At the outset, buying a standard vaping kit in Myanmar is not cheap for many, especially locals. Although prices vary from store to store, a device such as a quality starter kit -- typically a pen-like vape mod -- could cost between K20,000-K25,000, which is an investment.

Furthermore, e-juices comes in a variety of sizes which affects prices. A 30ml bottle could go for K13,000. But prices are also dependent on brands as well, much like Grand Royal and Johnny Walker are both whiskey brands, but their gap is wide. The same goes for e-juice prices. And just like fine spirits, vape connoisseurs can find rare flavours for several thousands of kyats -- a 100ml bottle of e-juice called ‘Unicorn Milk’ costs K95,000.  

Vaping mania has taken the whole of the Asia, particularly our next-door neighbor Malaysia. The number of vapers in Myanmar is set to grow. If there are already tobacco inspired flavours on the market, perhaps “traditional Burmese cheroot” might become one of the many flavours available.