Hazy clouds of transparent smoke permeated the walls lined with a multitude of products, and fruity lychee, green apple and mango scents harmonized on June 30 as LA Vapor celebrated its fifth anniversary. Trap beats escaped the room with the entrance of each customer. Friends gathered at the counter sharing refreshments, noodles and vapes.
The shop in San Gabriel sells vapes, which are electronic alternatives to cigarettes, as well as vape juices, the liquids used in the devices. The devices are called vapes because they enable users to breathe in nicotine or other substances as vapor instead of smoke.
Shops like LA Vapor have become common in the 626 area in the last decade. David Chia, 31, is LA Vapor’s owner and manager of business relations. He notes that vapes are gaining popularity not only in Alhambra and the surrounding areas, but all over the world.
“There was more of a stigma back then,” Chia explains, referring to the time his shop opened. “But now we [distribute] nationwide and internationally to Canada, the U.K., China, Germany. You can definitely see the industry growing at a rapid pace. The community is just getting bigger and bigger and we’re pretty confident that it will continue to grow.”
Chia and his staff were in a celebratory mood at their anniversary event.
“One of the things we do pride ourselves on, especially as a vape shop, a lot of the guys here provide really good customer service,” manager Preston Chang, 25, said. “They develop a really good friendship and relationship with their customers.”
Vaping has engraved itself in local culture. Yelp lists more than 20 vape shops in Alhambra and neighboring communities that have opened since vaping was popularized. These shops specialize in offering various methods of vaping, which include juuls, phixs, suorin drops and suorin airs. Each vape vary varies in levels of nicotine, which provide options for beginners and experienced consumers.
Minh Tran, 36, LA Vapor customer and business owner of Vape Central in Phoenix, Arizona, explains why vaping is so popular in the LA area, noting that “this is where it all sort of mainstreamed in America.”
“[Southern California] is the mecca of the vaping industry,” he said. “If you look at all the popular juices, they’re all local around here. The major ones are all manufactured in Southern California, especially in the Los Angeles and Orange County area.”
However, with the growing popularity of vaping, there has been backlash from the community about the use of e-cigarettes and other vape devices. The Pasadena Star-News reported that on Oct. 28, 2013, the Alhambra City Council voted to enact the same requirements for vaping as for smoking of traditional cigarettes. Fines ranging from $100 to $500 are given if an e-smoker is caught smoking in a “no smoking” area. Similar laws and regulations were later enacted in surrounding areas.
Ensuring that e-cigarettes are treated the same as cigarettes has proven to stigmatize vaping, LA Vapor employee Hoang Nguyen, 27, said.
“One misconception would be that it’s more harmful for you, even though there are ingredients, for example vegetable glycerin or propylene glycol,” he said. “Inhalers use propylene glycol to base inhalation for treatment. It’s basically the same thing, except we use nicotine as a base for medication.”
Other common misconceptions include vape shops appealing to children or that vaping causes diseases not affiliated with traditional cigarettes. From applying rigorous ID checks to ensuring authentic manufacturing, vape shops say they aim to provide the best quality product to debunk such claims. A commonality among e-smokers is the need to quit smoking cigarettes. Because the levels of nicotine are lower than in traditional cigarettes, vaping provides users with a way to ease off smoking tobacco. Nevertheless, many customers acknowledge that just because vaping is a healthier option does not mean that it is healthy. It’s more about finding enjoyment and improving their lifestyles, they say.
“I found vaping to be a better alternative for me,” Nguyen said. “I was tired of coming home smelling like cigarettes after work. I wouldn’t say it’s trendy, because I don’t want it to be a trend. I want it to be a lifestyle change.”
Though there is still more research to be done on this young phenomenon, vape shops have garnered a following in the 626 area that shows no signs of evaporating any time soon.
Elias Almarez-Herrera is an Alhambra Source intern and a senior at Alhambra High School.