A Touch of the Vapers: Will E-Cigs Ever Look Cool On Screen?

Reaction to the second season of True Detective has been divided, but even fans arguing over whether it was “pretty bad” or “really bad” would have to agree on one thing: it’s certainly been the highest-profile TV showcase for electronic cigarettes to date. For Rachel McAdams’ tightly wound Ani Bezzerides, vaping was an intrinsic part of her investigative process. Her habit of taking puffs on the magic pen annoyed some of her colleagues, but she made it look cool, or at least intense. “You pull off that e-cig,” admitted her sketchy partner Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), although his follow-up was perhaps even more telling: “Not a lot of people do.”


Now a few more might. Public Health England recently declared that, in their opinion, e-cigarettes had the potential to make a significant contribution to “the endgame of tobacco” , hot on the heels of research indicating a sharp rise in vaping among UK youth . Perhaps then 2015 will be a techno-filter tipping point, the moment when vape pens finally escape the hipster/douchebag ghetto and go fully mainstream.

For that to happen you would imagine that television and film will need to play a part. Decades of movies and TV shows did an unprecedented PR job on cigarettes, imprinting pop culture with the enduring perception that smoking is cool, from glamorous femme fatales in hazy noirs to diehard heroes with terrorists to foil. Even when total scumbags spark up on-screen, it often feels like a statement of rebellion rather than a pathetic addiction.

Some decent screen time then could definitely help mainstream e-cig use, which is still enough of a novelty to be distracting to most bystanders – especially if your choice of vape pen resembles a leftover part from a build-your-own-bagpipes kit. The e-cig industry though is currently languishing on the back foot after completely fluffing its big TV debut in the UK. The first ad to depict someone smoking in 50 years screened in a post-watershed slot on ITV late last year , and sparked multiple complaints for its tacky depiction of a woman exhaling vapor in a suggestive manner.

Whatever their perceived benefits, e-cigs are still uncommon enough to seem like an affectation, so onscreen they tend to be shorthand for characters who think rather a lot of themselves. House of Cards co-conspirators Frank and Claire Underwood used to share a crafty proper fag out of their townhouse window as they ratified ruthless power plays. By season two, Frank had switched up to an e-cig and attempted to sell his wife on its merits. “You should try it,” he purred. “Addiction without the consequences.” Claire, perhaps wisely, remained unconvinced.

In the US adaptation of The Bridge (a remake of the Scandi original set on the US/Mexican border), the second season introduced sharply tailored CEO Sebastian, a man who wielded his vape pen like a magic wand. He was hoping, perhaps, to make the cops investigating the laundering of drug cartel money disappear. But in a series not short on colorful characters, it certainly made him stand out.

It doesn’t help that onscreen vaping still looks similar enough to actual smoking that it risks falling under the same restrictions that prohibit cigarettes from all-ages entertainment and prompted Disney to ban traditional smokers from its entire output .If you try to imagine a mainstream blockbuster movie prominently featuring vaping, can you picture it as being anything other than an annoying tic for the baddie? (Johnny Depp puffed on a glowing e-cig in the early running of The Tourist, but if anything, that was supposed to suggest his sadsack character was too timid to stick with the real thing.)

Last year, John Cusack – an actor apparently unable to make space in his schedule for Hot Tub Time Machine 2 because he is hell-bent on churning out movies of even more dubious quality – starred in Drive Hard , a tepid car chase thriller set in Australia. As a twitchy, unpredictable bank robber, Cusack fiddled with a vape pen throughout the entire film, a wildly distracting and irritating choice. It was a timely reminder that despite their well-deserved killer rep, real cigarettes still run smoke rings around e-cigs when it comes to looking cool – or even just looking natural – onscreen.

So what hope is there for the e-cig industry? Perhaps they should unite and lobby for one massive mainstream TV breakthrough. The conspiracy-stoking Cigarette Smoking Man (in the form of 77-year-old William B Davis) has been confirmed for the forthcoming X-Files mini-series so maybe Fox could be convinced to rebrand the character as “Vape Pen Pensioner”. But the real mother lode would be to get Peter Capaldi to suck on a cyber-cig in the Tardis. Not only is Doctor Who a character beloved by millions worldwide, he’s already normalized waving around a thin metal tube with a glowing LED on one end . That’s half the battle won.

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