It’s a sunny day on 10th Street in South Philly, and Philly Vapes is bustling — so much so that its owner V. Sobann hardly has time to talk. The same thing is true of Love Vape on Fifth Street, inches from the corner of South Street, an area that’s home to more e-cigarette sales salons and vape lounges (three and counting) than there are Starbucks. Manayunk has several vape lounges, as does West Chester, Upper Darby and Northeast Philly. Fishtown Vapes recently opened, with word of e-cig boites coming to Kensington and Northern Liberties.
E-entrepreneurs like Sobann started their businesses (Philly Vapes, in December 2013) as an alternative to their own tobacco addiction. “I started vaping five years ago, while still smoking real cigarettes, but stopped completely three years ago,” said Sobann. “I noticed changes in my life, physically and mentally. Plus, I have a daughter too and want to be around for her.” This is the MO of most traditional tobacco smokers who, for so-called health reasons, turned to battery-operated products that deliver nicotine in the form of liquid-based aerosol.
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Sobann’s livelihood will soon be in a state of flux since Mayor Michael Nutter signed bills in April prohibiting the sale of e-cigarettes (and all electronic smoking devices like vape pens) to minors, and banning vaping in local workplaces, bars, restaurants and other public spaces. The bill focusing on minors took effect immediately; the bill regarding public spaces takes effect July 1. Similar bills on a Pennsylvania statewide level are still pending, New Jersey initiated its e-cig ban in 2010, the first state to do so.
The Food & Drug Administration is continuing its studies on vape regulation. Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products, told Congress last week e-cigarettes are probably healthier than tobacco. “If we could get all of those people (who smoke tobacco) to completely switch to noncombustible cigarettes, it would be good for public health,” said Zeller.
For now, the e-cig biz is booming. “I have a daughter; I wouldn’t sell to kids,” said Sobann of the sales ban to minors. “Plus, I think it’s wrong to smoke where people are eating, so that ban is cool too."
Regarding the potential of new lounge inhabitants, since vaping will soon be illegal in most public places, he’s unsure. “A lot of us who own these lounges, we’re friends. We don’t think of what we have as hang-outs. We make our places comfortable, but it’s like cigar bars or coffee shops. You get in-and-outs who grab smoke and leave, others want to know more. It’s the sub-culture of e-cigs, sharing experiences good and bad.”
Chris Jones, manager at E-Cigg in Manayunk, sees his lounge as selling a product, not a service. Jones warns armchair entrepreneurs interested in getting in on the vape lounge boom to beware: if the FDA gets involved, the process of getting applications for individual flavors (“and we have over 200”), a must for vape shops, is going to be more difficult than in the past, and more costly. “Estimates for that are in the $1.5 million range,” claims Jones. Plus, if the FDA’s proposed plan (now in the comments stage) takes effect, e-cig products produced after 2007 will need FDA approval to be sold, with thousands of research hours and estimated millions of dollars per item and per application to determine the health impact of each instrument.
“Those of us who’ve been around with customers and developed businesses will probably be okay,” said Jones, “but the new guys, the little guys, are going to have a tough time.”