There is little doubt that Yangon is a city of smokers – you only have to walk into your nearest teashop or beer station to experience the modern-day equivalent of a Dickensian ‘pea-souper’. Whilst the health authorities in many countries are fighting hard to prevent smokers from lighting up almost anywhere where it might be pleasurable for them to do so, it seems that here smokers still rule the roost – regardless of the displeasure and ill-health it may inflict on others – certainly for the time being anyway.
Judging by the clouds of smoke billowing around many public locations – and the resulting smell of your clothes and hair after an extended visit – it is clear that the ‘Control of Smoking and Consumption of Tobacco Product Law’ implemented in Myanmar in 2006 has so far had little effect at reducing smoking anywhere. And there are no signs that the smokers of Yangon are considering kicking the habit any time soon.
Even the newest and trendiest drinking spots that have opened all over the city in the last few years are filled with an intimidatingly thick pall of second-hand cigarette smoke at their busiest hours. This industrial strength fug – seemingly an intentional and vital element to their minimalist warehouse /industrial revolution themes – is driving many customers out and away in search of more open and better-ventilated bars.
It is especially notable to the tourists visiting Myanmar who are perhaps more used to the rigorously policed restrictive smoking legislations of their home countries. “It’s like being in a working-mans club in the 1970’s in here!’ one British visitor to Yangon announced to anyone who happened to be listening as he blindly fought his way through the smog at a popular downtown bar.
It’s estimated that over fifty-per cent of the population regularly consumes tobacco either through betel-quid, hand-rolled cheroots, filtered and un-filtered cigarettes and even Shisha pipes. And international tobacco companies – seeing globally decreasing sales due to an increasing awareness about the dangers of smoking – are clamouring to plunder the recently opened Myanmar tobacco market and take advantage of this last bastion of nicotine addicts. It is anticipated that over the next few years the numbers of smokers of filtered cigarettes in Myanmar will buck the worldwide trend and actually increase, especially in the cities.
And although smokers here are more informed than ever before of the risks of smoking – with packets of locally made cigarettes costing as little as 500Kyat – the incentive to stop is certainly not a financial one, and perhaps more could be done to highlight the health issues. In Thailand cigarette packets are adorned with hideous images of diseased lungs and cancerous growths, displayed behind shop counters they act as a very graphic and gruesome reminder of the dangers of smoking. In other countries the boxes are plastered with health warnings and then hidden away behind closed doors and under counters. Here there are very few health warnings visible, and anyway you can buy individual cigarettes from children at traffic lights; you even occasionally get cigarettes given as change in beer stations when small notes are not available. It’s difficult to avoid cigarettes completely, even if you are not a smoker.
If you are a smoker, and if you are trying to or thinking of trying to give up smoking, then you can be forgiven for finding it a struggle, and perhaps be excused for the occasional relapse; as surely this must be one of the most difficult places in the word to pack-in the fags. However, there is an alternative to going ‘cold-turkey’ out there, and one that is quickly growing in popularity.
It is called vaping.
This unfortunately titled activity recently introduced into Myanmar is already massively popular in Europe and the US. And although it is outlawed in Thailand and Singapore it currently has no restrictions in place here. And if you look carefully in some of the trendier spots of the Yangon night scene, then you might be surprised to see an increasing number of people foregoing the traditional cancer-stick and sucking on these unusual space-aged-biro type gadgets.
In fact The word ‘Vape’ is also the latest word to be added to the dictionary – having been named 2014’s international “Word of the Year” by Oxford Dictionaries. Following in the footsteps of recent winning words such as ‘selfie’, ‘omnishambles’ and ‘simples’; Vape as both a verb and a noun has been considered wothy of this title, due to the increased usage in the last twelve months, this reflects the huge rise in the popularity of vaping over the past few years.
As Myanmar’s Ministry of Health continues to work towards introducing a stricter countrywide approach to smoking, Vaping is set to become more mainstream. And one that transcends age and gender boundaries – as young and old from both sexes are moving to, and showing an interest in this alternative fix.
Vape City is a dedicated Vaping shop, and the first of its kind in the country, the manager Okkar Kyaw sits on a smart leather high stool next to his Harley Davidson motorbike exhaling a big cloud of smoke.
“You see, no smell”, he explains to me, taking another hefty toke and wafting his hand through the exhaled air. His assistants follow suit and pretty soon the room is briefly filled with misty grey smoke that vanishes as quickly as it arrived.
“It’s not smoke by the way’, he adds having seen my grimaced reaction. “It’s water vapour.” I stop holding my breath. “We’re Vaping in here, all day-every day and you can’t smell it.”
He’s right, there is no smell in the air, the ceilings aren’t yellowed with tar, and the tables aren’t dusted with ash. It is clear that these guys are seriously into vaping, but there is no visible or aromatic evidence to demonstrate it.
The mist disappears and Okkar Kyaw seems pleased with his demonstration; as the pictures of Myanmar celebrities partaking in the vape reappear on the wall behind the counter his display team put away their instruments and drift back to their work.
“We get all types of clients in here; old men who’ve smoked like a chimney for decades, and young ladies who only smoke occasionally – social smokers. We get a lot of women buying kits for their boyfriends and husbands, they say they are sick of them smelling like dirty ashtrays and want them to stop smoking!”
With kits ranging from $50 for a basic starter set all the way up to $300 for something that looks like it could be a weapon from a Science fiction movie – vaping is not a cheap option. And the jury is still out on whether it is actually a healthier option. Numerous scientific tests are being carried out around the world to see whether vaping has any serious negative health effects and it seems the scientists are either loath to make a categorical decision, or being very cautious about the financial and health implications of any conclusions they make. However the internet is awash with personal testimonies from Vapers (as they are known) around the world about their positive experiences, and satisfaction with kicking the weed into touch. The current general consensus is that vaping is certainly no worse for you than smoking traditional cigarettes, and its certainly less smelly.
The process is simple he tells me, you fill a chamber with e-liquid – this is a glycerine based liquid that ranges from nicotine free to a 24mg/ml (the equivalent of a high strength brand of cigarette) – then press the button on the side which activates the battery to heat a coil that vaporises the liquid which you then inhale. Easy!
He offers me a chunky wooden machine with a pleasing handgrip and a glowing blue button on the side to try. As the gang gathers back around eagerly awaiting my reaction I am suddenly, nervously transported back to the bike sheds of my youth. I tentatively take a puff, praying that I don’t make a fool of myself by coughing and puking everywhere, and then slightly less cautiously try a couple more pulls. It’s a strange sensation at first, exhaling smoke from something that technically isn’t on fire, but not unpleasant. The e-liquids come in a variety of flavours, and Vape City has 120 to choose from, all of them imported from the US and bearing the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approved logo. Pretty soon I am zipping through the flavours like a kid in a sweet shop, and settle on coffee as my favourite.
The instruments of vaping have now moved into a second generation Okkar Kyaw explains, where previously they were deliberated aimed to resemble cigarettes, with a similar shape and feel, nowadays they are unique in style and come in all manner of shapes and sizes. Your serious Vapers are carrying around large heavy pieces of kit that could never be mistaken for a dirty gasper.
And as a perfect example of the ‘Baader-Meinhof phenomenon’ – in that something you have been recently introduced to seems to suddenly appear all over the place – since my visit to Vape City I’m now seeing Vapers everywhere. Where before I only saw – or certainly assumed to see smokers – I am seeing Vapers. And all are keen to share their enthusiasm and happy to talk about their experiences vaping. If you’re in a bar and see a Vaper go and say hello, or at the very least go and stand nearby- it’ll be much less smoky there.
As there seems to be a continued interest in this post, two years after it was written I have double checked the location of Vape City. It seems that they have moved on from their original location in Bahan, and as far as I can gather they are now located at the Dagon Centre 2 (second floor) 268 Pyay Road, Myay Ni Gone Ward, San Chaung Township, Yangon. I imagine they will be open 9am – 9pm.
Some information can be obtained from their Facebook page, though it is mainly in Myanmar language: https://www.facebook.com/VapeCityMyanmar/ or call them on 0973230222. There seems to be some suggestion that they’ll be opening a branch at the Hledan Centre in Kamayut soon as well.
If anyone has any further information, please let me know and I’ll keep this post up to date, and if you do go to Vape City, say hi from me!
Cheers and happy Vaping!
A version of this article was published in My Yangon – January 2015
This article was updated to reflect the change of address in September 2016.