Nikita, 39, ex-smoker "The feeling is the key - not the nicotine"

From heets to disposable vapes to a simple pod system. 39-year-old Nikita Lövheden's journey from smoker to non-smoker has been through a variety of nicotine products. 
"I have been smoke-free for over five years. I might have a cigarette at a party once in a while, but I know I won't start smoking again. It's not good at all anymore," she says when we meet in a cold spring day in Gothenburg in one of the city's three vejpshoppar - specialised shops for e-cigarettes.

- Vejpkollen collaborated with Convenience Stores Sweden News to portray Swedish nicotine consumption, beyond the statistics. This is a slightly modified version of the report against the original published in CSS News. -

She has just bought some new pods, tanks, for her e-cigarette. And some small bottles of e-liquid. They are lined up in front of her on the table. 

"Well, the hard part about e-cigs is all the choices and different flavours. I like most of it, as long as it's not too strong in my throat. The only thing I can't stand is tobacco flavours. It's just disgusting. Well, I have found ONE - but it was in a disposable vape and it tasted more like coffee than tobacco, come to think of it," she says as she fills the tank with something that tastes like mango.
At least she hopes so. The e-juice doesn't always taste the way Nikita intended. "But as long as there's menthol in it, it usually goes well anyway," she laughs.

"Few who smoke"

Nikita Lövheden talks fast. It's a contrast to the sedate calm that characterises a vejp shop at one o'clock in the afternoon. Customers usually arrive in the late afternoon. Nikita is used to a different pace, she says. After eleven years as a security guard, she changed jobs twice and now works as an assistant nurse in the transplantation unit at Sahlgrenska Hospital. A different pulse, definitely.

"There are few who smoke or vejpar. But basically EVERYONE uses snus, mostly nicotine pouches," she says. "It's convenient not to have to go out to get your kick and it doesn't smell. I've tried those too, dry, wet and faan and his aunt, but it just doesn't work. My mouth gets all weird from snuff and stuff like that, I have to go out during breaks or wait until the end of the working day.

Peer pressure and neighbourhood policing

She took her first puff on a cigarette when she was 13, she says. She grew up in Partille outside Gothenburg in the 80s and 90s.

"I started very early. I think there was a lot of peer pressure involved there. We would sneak behind the sheds outside the school. Our two neighbourhood policemen were there sometimes and checked on us. They were probably worried that we were doing drugs. But they used to make small talk with us and were very nice. I guess they picked their battles. The fact that we were smoking wasn't the end of the world."

Stealing from mum

She remembers that it was easy to get cigarettes in those days. And if that was not possible, she used to steal some from home.

"Me and a friend rolled off my mum's rolling tobacco. Then we filled it with something else, dry spices or one of those things you use to sharpen pencils."

I ask if mum didn't notice anything. Smoking pencil-wax isn't the most fun, is it?

"No, she didn't notice anything, when I told her, she didn't believe me at first so I had to prove it. But she was very firm when it came to smoking. She said that if I were to get cigarettes, it would only be through her. She was afraid that I would get something spiked with something else," says Nikita Lövheden.

Bigger packets - more smoking

Nevertheless, the offer was different in the shops. It was at the crossroads when tobacco laws were changing.

"Yes, my God. You could buy them one at a time for two kronor. And I liked buying those little packs of ten cigarettes. When they were removed, I had to buy large packs. Then I started smoking more too. So it wasn't very successful," she says.

Successful with drugs - for a while

She first quit smoking when she was expecting her first child, without any aids or substitutes. However, she started again for a while after giving birth. Then came child number two and the same thing happened again. In 2017 she tried to quit again, partly because her husband at home thought the smell of smoke was a bit too much.

This time using the drug 'champix', varenicline. Varenicline inhibits the body's production of dopamine, which also removes the 'pleasure' of nicotine. It is a medicine recommended by both the public health authority and, of course, the pharmaceutical companies..

"It actually worked. At least for a while. I stopped taking the tablets pretty quickly. Then I didn't smoke for a year. It wasn't much fun, but it went surprisingly well."

"The cigar at the party"

It was on a trip to Egypt that she tried a puff on a more luxurious cigarette (slims). On a festive occasion. Just one, she says.

"And it was just as good as it used to be. And even though I would only take one "at the party", I ended up smoking as regularly as before. I started to like menthol cigars, previously click cigarettes were my favourites but they were no longer available."

Click cigarettes were banned in 2016. 

"It was probably a combination of different things that made me switch from cigarettes. After a friend showed me an IQOS with Heets, I became a little curious. There was a drive at the press agency, I remember, and I took the opportunity to buy one. Since then, I haven't actually smoked, except on a few occasions." says Nikita.

Not for health reasons

Heets and IQOS are a variant of an e-cigarette, where tobacco mixed with glycerine is heated and vaporised. Instead of smoke, vapour is formed, dramatically reducing the amount of harmful substances. The technology was launched by Philip Morris in 2015 and is now sold in many shops alongside cigarettes. For Nikita, it was the start of a new journey. But it wasn't health or harm minimisation concerns that drove the decision.

"No, I learnt about the health aspects a little later. I understand how it works and that there is a big difference between smoke and vapour. "This is actually much less harmful than smoking," I thought. But that was not the main reason, actually. It was that I didn't smell smoke anymore, even though I was "smoking". That was an important thing. Then it bothered me a bit that the device itself started to smell like a cigarette butt after a while. Not the end of the world, and I tried to clean it often. But still. At least it worked. Ran with Heets for three years, almost."

Feeling more important than nicotine

As with IQOS, it was chance that led her to the next thing, she says. A friend had bought a disposable vape - a miniature e-cigarette that lasts one to two days. It works by heating e-liquid (glycerine, propylene glycol, and flavourings) into a vapour. No tobacco, but with added nicotine. 

"The disadvantage of Heets, at least back then, was that they were not available everywhere. Disposable models were everywhere. It was a bit of an aha moment. Heets taste pretty much like a cigarette. A vejp tastes almost like candy. Very tasty. And then it tears at the throat in a different way. For me, it is probably the feeling, and not the nicotine, that is a big part of the thing. If it wasn't for that, a nicotine patch would certainly have worked. But now it doesn't, because it just gets boring," she laughs.

Must not be too complicated

When we meet, she has just switched from disposable models to an e-cigarette that can be both charged and refilled with a separate e-liquid. "Disposable models are quite expensive in the long run," she says. At the same time, she doesn't want it to be too complicated.

"No, an e-cig should not be complicated, I think. There shouldn't even be a button. But I like being able to choose more different flavours. There should always be something with a cooling effect, ice or menthol. And it shouldn't be too strong, or it will just give me a sore throat." says Nikita as she turns and twists a small tank, a so-called pod, which she recently filled with e-liquid. "It needs to soak for a while, I've learnt," she says, with some impatience.

Don't want to ban children

I ask her how her children, four of them of different ages, view e-cigarettes. And how she herself acts as a parent when it comes to smoking and other risks her children are exposed to.

"For us it has never been about banning this or that. However, we have said this: if you don't smoke or drink on the sly before you turn 18, we will pay for your driving licence. Unfortunately, I found a package in my daughter's bag that she had stolen from me. I wasn't happy at all, but after that she stopped doing it altogether. Then she got her licence with her own money when she turned eighteen. Proudly, too. It was the same with her older son, but under different circumstances."

"Significantly worse things than e-cigs"

At the same time, she believes that neither smoking nor, for that matter, vejping are among the most serious challenges for parents today.

"I mean, if a child decides to start wearing false nails too early, they can ruin their cuticles for the rest of their lives if they don't want to. Or if they dye their hair and go for two years feeling bad because it didn't turn out well. What are a few puffs on an e-cig compared to anxiety that can have consequences much later in life? And if we're going to be picky, why not let them vejpake nicotine-free? What harm does it do, in comparison. I think it's important to put things in perspective," she says as we walk out to the car parked outside the shop. 

She takes a puff and squints at the sun.

"As soon as it gets a little warmer, I usually head out to the sea or lake and go fishing. It is then, and only then, that I smoke these days. On a stone by the water. And it feels perfectly fine. Because it's not on the map for me to become a smoker again. It's a good feeling," she says before hurrying off to the next shift.

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