Features & Columns

E-cigarettes Go Social
with Vape Shops

IN THE CLOUD: Brandon Vargas exhales vapor from a vape pen at Elements SJ. Photograph by Colin Quirt

Sean Chan thinks vaporizers will become an essential personal technology, one you check for on the way out the door: phone, keys, wallet, vape. The manager at Elements SJ vape bar at Fourth and St. John streets in San Jose discovered the electronic cigarette technology last year, which helped him kick a smoking habit he picked up in high school.

"I've been tapering down my nicotine," he says. "Eventually, I'll get it down to zero. At least this way, unlike with cigarettes, I have some control. I can dose it."

Though vape bars target wannabe-ex-smokers like Chan, they've struck a chord among hobbyists, stoners and the casually curious, too. Vaping, once a technology relegated to Reddit threads and fanboy forums, has sparked a larger trend with stores and lounges cropping up across the South Bay and SoCal, regions with low cigarette-smoking rates, according to the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association. San Jose counts upwards of a dozen vape bars and shops, including Chill Vape, The Vape Bar and Hella Good Vapors.

A quick explainer of how the whole vaping thing works: a battery in the the e-cigarette or "pen" heats a wire that boils a liquid, often infused with nicotine or THC, into a vapor that's inhaled and exhaled in a dramatic white puff. The vapor disappears in seconds, leaving a lingering scent of whatever flavor infusion the pen packs. It's mesmerizing and, for some, addicting for the oral fixation alone. The flavors, sold in dropper-tipped vials of fragrant clear liquid, come in a wide range of candy-sweet fruits and blends like chocolate mint or melon mash-ups.

Vape shops started out as a place to buy and try out new equipment: battery packs, heaters, tanks and other e-cig miscellany. Traditional smoke shops often doubled as vape peddlers. Then, in the past year, vape bars started springing up, places with couches, flatscreen TVs, bar stools and foosball tables. Elements SJ, which opened a few months ago, hosts company parties and sees an after-work rush every weekday. There's a dartboard on one end and a couch on the other.

"We started seeing emphasis on more of the social aspect," Chan says. "People want to come in and hang out."

Vapers bond over the technology, too. Customers come in with custom-engineered iterations of vapes all the time, some unwieldy as light sabers and others compact enough to affix to an iPhone case.

"They have vape meet-ups," Chan says. "People, vape nerds, really get into the technology side, trying to figure out how to maximize the vapor or improve the design. I have customers come in all the time to show off their latest modifications."

Whether vapes will outlast the trend phase remains to be seen. That depends on whether or not regulators crack down on the technology as much as they have on traditional tobacco and cannabis products. Right now, there are no federal rules on the technology, though some local governments have imposed restrictions. Like with other tobacco products, customers have to be at least 18 years old to buy vapes.

"These aren't necessarily a replacement for cigarettes, though they can replace them," Chan says. "It's a completely different technology, so it shouldn't be subject to the same restrictions about smoking indoors or close to an entrance."

In one more way, vapes don't replace cigarettes: they don't quite possess that cool factor, perhaps absent years of pro-smoking propaganda that's propped up this mystique around their cancer-causing counterparts. There's a ritual around the cigarette habit that lures people in: the frequent breaks, the excuse to go outside and shoot the shit with other smokers, the fact that it pairs so well with alcohol. If vaping taps into the social side, the nightlife and the drinking, then maybe it will resonate with a wider audience.

"The scene is so new that it's hard to say where it will go next," Chan says. "It's evolving as more people discover it."