The DIY vape juice scene is booming after bans threaten flavors nationwide
"I think the bans will cause our community to grow explosively."
Flavored e-juices aren’t dead yet. But as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), New York State, and Michigan move to ban flavored vape juice from the market, vapers are already prepping for what officials say is inevitable. Sensing doomsday ahead, devotees are stocking up on the supplies and knowledge they need to make their favorite flavors themselves.
It’s been a tumultuous summer for e-cigarettes. To date, there have been reports of 380 cases of “vaping-related illnesses” across 36 states since July. No legal vape company has yet been implicated in those illnesses, though several black market THC vape brands, and thickening agents are suspected to have played a role.
How the FDA plans to deal with the black market is still undefined, but New York, Michigan, and the FDA have all put legal flavored vape pods squarely in the crosshairs. In his announcement of an “emergency executive action” to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes, New York governor Andrew Cuomo took aim at manufacturers of “fruit and candy-flavored e-cigarettes” who “are intentionally and recklessly targeting young people.” Meanwhile, the FDA’s claim that it will “clear” the vape market of flavors is a follow-up on its previous warning that it would “revisit” its policy on the legality of flavors.
"I think the bans will cause our community to grow explosively."
In turn, mango-flavored JUUL pods and the like may not be long for this world. But does this mean that vape flavors are gone for good? A small, but intense community of DIY e-juice makers suggests: probably not.
David Bellows, one of the moderators of the /r/DIY_ejuice subreddit tells Inverse that they’re expecting an influx of DIY e-juice newbies who will try their hand at making their favored flavors themselves if the “vape bans” proceed:
“We’ve seen growth since the announcements of bans and threats of bans,” Bellows says. “I think the bans will cause our community to grow explosively. But that’s because we’re a fairly small community at the moment.”
The Niche World of DIY E-Juice
Some scientists are skeptical about the safety of certain vape flavors (particularly sweet flavors). But right now the FDA’s major line of reasoning behind its vape policy change has to do with removing fruity temptations from the path of teens — not cracking down on potentially risky flavor combinations.
“The Trump Administration is making it clear that we intend to clear the market of flavored e-cigarettes to reverse the deeply concerning epidemic of youth e-cigarette use that is impacting children, families, schools and communities,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in a statement.
But adults also like their flavors and are willing to go to lengths to keep using them, which makes DIY e-juice making a tempting prospect.
DIY vape juice makers were once a small niche community. In May 2012, the /r/DIY_ejuice subreddit had just 64 people subscribed. Now it has around 50,800 subscribers. About 600 people have joined since September 12th, the day after the FDA announcement.
Some of those users keep things simple and just focus on flavors that can be bought at the store. But there’s also bonafide mixing scene where hobbyists like Bellows get creative:
“I was drawn to DIY for the ability to make custom flavor blends and I know this sounds silly and pretentious, but it’s become a passion for me, kind of an art form,” says Bellows. “For most people, though, I think the main attractions have been saving money and knowing what’s in their ejuice.”
"I know this sounds silly and pretentious, but it’s become a passion for me, kind of an art form.”
A lot of that recipe formation happens on a discord server off Reddit that /r/DIY_ejuice directs people who are interested to. There DIYers can find just under 200 active members ready to respond at any time. They give recipe advice, check each other’s orders, and discuss what it’s like to take flavoring agents intended for food products and mix them to create bespoke vape flavors.
The conversation in that discord server and in DIY_ejuice, in general, wouldn’t be out of place in the Bon Appétit test kitchen. Recently, one user was hailed for a White Chocolate Caramel mocha flavor. Another, workshopping an apple pie recipe, offered the following advice: “a bit of croissant and maybe TFA brown sugar extra might make for a nice pairing to complement the apple filling.”
DIY e-juice mixers dream up new flavors with astounding regularity and complexity, including but not limited to a “cereal trip” flavor recipe that includes 17 different flavors, from cream cheese icing to black cherry. YouTube is a place for DIYers to convene as well. There, mixologists-to-be can find basic how-to videos and learn how some vape juices need to be steeped to create their flavors while others, called “shake and vapes”, can be spun up in about five minutes. Account subscribers can range from 7 thousand to 50,000 individuals.
Mixology aside, Bellows notes that in the past saving money was the primary force that drove the DIY community’s modest growth. In one 2015 video, the host behind “DIY or DIE” notes that “it’s like some kind of vaping folklore passed down from vape generation to vape generation” and that “yes you can save money by making your own e-juice.” That video has over 84,000 views.
More recently, there are signs that the DIY vaping is changing in response to vape bans. On Saturday, Ohio-based vape manufacturer Cloudberry Vapors reported that it’s experiencing “bulk orders” and offered discounts in a post entitled “preparing for the end” on the /r/electronic_cigarette subreddit. Meanwhile, the /r/DIY_ejuice subreddit’s digest — a newsletter of sorts — has already welcomed Michiganders (vape users responding to the state’s movement to ban e-cigarette flavors) and “Doomsday Preppers.”
The phrase Doomsday Preppers may seem dramatic, but it appears to have struck a chord. Redditor /u/Lemonsniffer tells Inverse:
“I have already bought several years worth of supplies, including the hardware, totaling about $300 USD. A small investment, but one that hopefully will be enough to ride out the storm.”
“That Will Be Our Loophole”
/u/Lemonsnifferwho was a smoker who started vaping at 27 years old. They are more concerned about people who relapse and return to cigarettes than they are about people making their own e-juice. Bellows agrees — but also believes that DIY is emerging as a way to get around flavor bans around the country.
“I plan on making my own juice. I had already been for a few years now, have taught several of my close friends how to make it, and where to procure the supplies. The ingredients are so simple. The only variable being the flavorings,” Lemonsniffer explains.
“I think if we can make DIY juice easy, that will be our loophole. They can ban the end product, but not the constituents.”
The ingredients used to make your own e-juice aren’t particularly hard to find, nor are they illegal. They usually include vegetable glycerin or propylene glycol, nicotine (or THC or CBD, depending on what you’re going for), and some flavoring agents that are usually intended for use in food products. On their own these ingredients are benign, but some come with risks.
"I think if we can make DIY juice easy, that will be our loophole. They can ban the end product, but not the constituents."
Nicotine, for example, is a toxic chemical that needs to be handled with gloves in its pure liquid form. Avoiding pure nicotine in favor of diluted forms is one of the basics of DIY mixing, but beginners don’t always know this. To be fair, people who work licensed vape shops don’t always follow the rules and handle nicotine safely. One survey of 77 Los Angeles area vape shops found that 62 percent of employees didn’t handle nicotine with gloves or safety equipment.
But the real black box when it comes to DIY flavor creation is still flavoring. Right now, the FDA has scant guidance on how to take a food additive (as most of these flavor agents are) and turn it into a product that’s vaporized. Some flavoring agents, like the mint or menthol flavor agent pulegone, are banned for use in food additives for being carcinogenic, yet are still present in high levels in commercial e-juices.
Furthermore, early scientific studies on rats have suggested that several flavoring agents can cause inflammation in blood vessel endothelial cells. But as Sairam Jabba, Ph.D., a research associate at Duke and author of a study that detected these high levels of pulegone explains, scientists don’t really know which flavors are actually safe to inhale.
“With exception of very few flavor chemicals, for most of the e-cigarette flavor chemicals and e-cigarette aerosol chemicals, no long-term inhalation toxicity data is available,” Jabba told Inverse previously.
/u/Lemonsniffer notes that they imagine some flavoring agents could be risky, and there’s a running list of ingredients linked to on the subreddit. On the discord server, many users weigh in on the #check-my-order-please channel to spot any ingredients that could be risky, like sugars which if allowed to burn (for instance if a coil gets clogged or broken) can be dangerous to inhale.
But it remains true that this dearth of research has left the DIY vape community to fend for itself. Not all flavoring may be dangerous, but without adequate research, regulators, scientists, and DIY mixers are shooting in the dark, as new ingredients are added to the repertoire and this market gets further away from the public eye.
So for now, the diehard DIY e-juice makers will watch the crackdowns from the sidelines and prepare to embrace new converts:
“I’m not preparing for crackdowns, nothing they’re doing appears to effect DIY e-juice that would require preparation,” says Bellows. “Well, I guess you could say I’m preparing mentally to be patient with beginners’ questions, but that’s about it.”