NJOY it while it lasts: how e-cigarettes taught me to smoke the real thing
I try not to collect addictions. My father was an alcoholic, from a line of alcoholics, who sobered up while in his twenties and kept my childhood home free of all abusable substances. He doesn't even like getting high at the dentist. With that sort of hard-won sobriety in my heritage, I knew I'd been given a fragile gift — a teetotalism to guard, not scoff at. When, a few years back, I felt myself "enjoying" alcohol a little too much, I quit it entirely for a time, just to make sure I was in control. I'm not sure what the term "addictive personality" means, but it probably applies to me. I thrive on habits, like eating at the same places every day, and ordering the same thing every time, and capping off the evening with a formulaic trip to 7-11.
But I try not to collect addictions. An addiction is a habit which outlives its enjoyability. And I'm addicted to cigarettes.
Most of my habits lack an origin story. One day I decided that specific sandwich / salad combo would hit the spot for lunch, and it did, and so I got the same thing the next day, and I'll continue on in that pattern until the sandwich / salad combo no longer hits the spot, and I'll pick a new combo. But I remember clearly the exact moment I set off down the path to a repeated, uncontrollable urge to put a papered stick of tobacco in my mouth and set it on fire.
It was all her fault. She reached into her purse, pulled out an NJOY, and took a drag. "Vaped" is the correct term, but I think a lame word like that could've killed this thing before it started. No, what she was doing was smoking, indoors, and it looked awesome.
The NJOY is a design marvel. It's barely heavier than a cigarette, exactly the size of a cigarette, and an LED lights up red on the end like fire. There's even a sort of crackle sound that happens when you pull from it. The single serving plastic case the e-cig is sold in clicks open like a Zippo. And the "smoke" (nicotine-laden steam) you exhale is substantial and satisfying. None of this is accidental, it's science meets marketing playing to the tune of a billion dollar opportunity. "Hey smokers," it says, "here's that thing you like but it won't kill you and your apartment and clothes and mouth won't smell like death and you won't die and you won't get wrinkles and it's not as expensive and it won't kill you probably." Something like that.
I always approached cigarettes like I approached alcohol. Enjoy in moderation, don't get addicted. After a few negative encounters, I grew to love the taste and enjoy the mild buzz. What I hated was the residual smell on my clothing, and the yucky taste in my mouth the morning after. For years, those negatives maintained my equilibrium. A few cigarettes a month. Anything more and I'd resent myself, anything less and I probably wasn't being very social.
I asked to try her NJOY. It was great. Not as great as a cigarette, but at least 25 or 50 percent of the fun, with about 10 percent of the guilt. It was easy math, and I had soon excused myself from my apartment, made the 30 second trip to 7-11, and returned with two of the $8 machines.
That's where my memory goes blurry. I'm not sure if the second NJOY was an alternate flavor to try, or a replacement for my friend's now-communal e-cig, or just blatant enthusiasm for the future of nicotine delivery. I bought a couple more NJOYs that week. Before long, I was smoking one a day. At my peak, I was up to two.
Now, it says on the box that a single NJOY is roughly equivalent to "two packs" of real cigarettes. This is terrifying, if true, because the single major departure the NJOY makes from the physical ritual of cigarette consumption is the lack of multiplicity. When you "smoke a cigarette," that's what you do: you smoke a cigarette. If you reach for another, the phrase "chain smoker" lights up in your brain, and mental images of white trash and J.D. Salinger characters vacillate rapidly and you hope you land on Salinger for your own self-conception before you have to go back inside and make eye contact with your betters — the non-smoker übermensch who populate this world and barely tolerate your existence. When you "smoke an NJOY," you simply put two packs worth of cigarettes in your mouth at once and wonder when you'll run out of nicotine juice.
"Chain smoking" an NJOY is a real pleasure. Some of my favorite moments from those happy times was writing while I smoked. There was no ash, no fire hazard, no smoke-in-eyes, or other considerations to be taken while smoking the real thing. I could simply float on a nicotine high for hours at a time and write like a badass.
My downfall was slow, subtle, and lacks a memorable "she reaches into her purse" moment of origin. I simply started smoking real cigarettes more often. I have some friends who smoke, one friend in particular, and for a while we'd stand outside and they'd smoke fire and I'd smoke vapor, and then sometimes I'd bum a real cigarette, and then I broke down and bought my own pack.
Despite the remarkable science and marketing of the NJOY, it simply can't compete with the satisfaction derived from breathing thick, nicotine-laden, tar-leaving smoke into your lungs. It turns out the truly most enjoyable part of smoking is the part that kills you.
With a raging nicotine addiction from my NJOY habit, and a substantially superior product in hand, I went with the superior product. I've tried to reverse the narrative, and taper off cigarettes by smoking NJOYs again, but it hasn't worked yet. The "funny" thing is I probably consume less nicotine a day through real cigarettes than was palatable with those ultra-convenient NJOYs. Those dastardly incarnations of marketing and science.
So, uh, don't smoke, kids. It's bad for you.