Hieu Huynh was happy to find a stretch of Wichita that didn’t already include a vape shop. At the rate the industry is going, the next person looking to open one may not be so lucky.
“We’re actually the only vape shop within that ZIP code,” said Huynh, co-owner of Central & Vapes at Central and Edgemoor. “We were looking for a place where there was no competition, where we could get our own customer base.”
Huynh and Fabrice Metan opened the store last month, selling e-cigarettes and everything needed to use them. It’s one of 10 or more vape shops that Huynh estimates have sprung up in the city over the past two years. Nationwide, the vaping business grew from about $500 million in 2012 to $1.5 billion last year, according to news reports.
The vape industry (a reference to the vapor produced by e-cigarettes) is driven by two factors: traditional cigarette smokers wanting to quit, and laws that prohibit where people can smoke. The battery-powered e-cigarettes produce a vapor after being loaded with a liquid concoction known as “juice” that contains flavoring, solvents and an amount of nicotine that can be adjusted.
“We are truly trying to get people to quit smoking; that’s one of our strong points,” Huynh said. “We want to get people away from tobacco and doing more vaping.”
The idea is to start customers off with a juice that contains about the same amount of nicotine as the cigarettes they’ve been smoking, then gradually decrease that level. In the meantime, Huynh said, customers will benefit from not ingesting other chemicals associated with tobacco.
E-cigarettes are currently not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Medical experts say they reduce the amount of toxins inhaled by a smoker but still deliver nicotine, which is addictive. Research is inconclusive as to whether they help people kick nicotine in the long term.
Vaping starter kits begin at about $30. A supply of juice costs about as much as an equivalent number of cigarettes, Huynh said.
“At first when you buy the system, it costs more (than cigarettes), but it’s an investment. In the long run it will save you money.”
The juices come in flavors ranging from strawberry to whiskey to tobacco. The shop also carries well-known premium brands with colorful names, such as “Suicide Bunny” and “The Mad Alchemist.”
Huynh and Means were previously partners in a party bus business. They chose vaping for their next venture because “we believe it’s a fast growing industry and we believe people are trying to quit smoking,” he said.
But what if the e-cigarettes work as he claims, and customers eventually don’t need nicotine?
“We might lose customers, but we’ll feel good about it.”
Huynh himself was never more than a social smoker who would have a few cigarettes when enjoying a drink or two. Even then, he said. “When I wake up, I’m coughing out loud. Now I smoke (an e-cigarette) and the next day I don’t cough up any nasty stuff.”
As for his business partner, Metan, Huynh said: “He never smoked, but he’s started vaping because he likes the flavor. He uses zero nicotine.”