2024-07-14 6:47 PM

City’s Vape Shops Multiply With Well-Stocked Shelves

COVID forced the demise of many local small businesses; a dramatic exception has been the proliferating vape and tobacco shops.

 The combined offerings of traditional cigars, ancient-style hookah pipes and digital delivery gadgets makes for colorful displays on opulently packed shelves.

A recent visit to Tobacco King at 336 South Washington St. provided an eyeful: Bob Marley rolling papers; “Gambler” packs of 250 cigarette filter tubes; glass Hookah pipes in varying colors; Cherokee menthol green pipe tobacco; herbal magical butter; lighters and ashtrays; cinnamon apple odor “exterminator candles” and a glassed-off room for pricey cigars.

The subculture of products expands to hunting knives, serving trays decorated with trucks and motorcycles, and various oils, tinctures and lotions. Another popular offering is Green Vein Kratom, a green-powdered plant-based herbal substance with pleasurable stimulant effects—currently legal but under government review.

 Slapped on the front door is the “You must be 21 to enter” sign. (Repeated on its website.) And products such as e-cigarette flash drives (they can resemble school supplies) under labels such as GeekVape and Sky Solo display the label: “Warning: This product contains nicotine. Nicotine is an addictive chemical.”  

According to Falls Church City business tax records, vape shops that opened since 2020 number at least three in Falls Church proper:  another Tobacco King at 111 West Broad St. and a “Fine Cigars” Eastern Smoke Shop at 1055 West Broad St. The latter (proprietor Marwan Alkhaled) carries the stimulant CBD (legal in Virginia since 2019) and fruit-flavored Gummy Bears favored by vapers.

A Paradise Smoke Shop at 800 W. Broad St. was registered by the accounting firm of Riley and Nguyen LLC before it folded.

Tobacco King’s reach is the widest, registered under variations of the name Saleh Omar Salim, with Fairfax locations on Leesburg Pike and Arlington Blvd., as well as other Virginia outlets in Arlington, Woodbridge, Sterling, Fredericksburg, Harrisonburg, Glen Allen and Blue Ridge.

“It’s roughly 80-90 stores, I’ve lost count,” said “Sammy,” as the CEO asked to be called in an interview with the News-Press. He employs 200, with no investors.

The reason Tobacco King shelves are well-stocked is that “product availability is really important,” he said. “You want to make sure they are ready for customers, so they can see the products about. You can’t say, Come back tomorrow,” so the risk of oversupply pays off.

Sammy is confident in his chain’s employees’ ability to enforce the laws against selling vaping and tobacco products to minors. “Our stores are registered, and they can’t conduct a transaction until they confirm the buyer is 21 or over,” he said. “There’s a couple of steps, including being able to read the age on the I.D.” And to purchase, a buyer must wait for the clerk to scan and create an “MSA” (Management Science Associates) report on who made the sale. Sellers can be fined under federal law. Equipment and training for I.D. enforcement are expensive, he notes.

The Food and Drug Administration last October formally cracked down on Juul’s market penetration after years of watching its growing popularity among youth (delayed by an administrative hold). There were legal complaints to settle, and fruit-flavored products were halted. The Falls Church School Board in August 2019 adopted a policy that “unequivocally prohibits the use or possession of any tobacco product or nicotine vapor product on school buses, on school property, or at on-site or off-site school-sponsored activities,” communications director John Wesley Brett told the News-Press. “The policy aligns with the school district’s commitment to creating a safe and healthy environment for all students, staff, and visitors. While it is impossible to eliminate the possibility of vaping incidents occurring in the school district, we continue to monitor and address any vaping incidents that may arise.”

Sammy, who was raised in Bakersfield, Calif., takes a philosophical view on addiction, based on personal experience. “Cigarettes and tobacco have been in the world for the longest time, the 1700s, 1800s, since the Stone Age. It’s the same as yesterday’s product, so you can’t say it’s a new harmful product,” he specifies. “But morality-wise, it’s definitely something my wife does not support” — to the point where at first she refused to marry him.

“I used to smoke cigarettes, and then in 2014 when Juul came out, I chose to vape,” Sammy says. “I started sleeping better and could run a mile, but when I was smoking a pack a day, I couldn’t do a two-minute run. My mucus was thick and black for the first six months after I quit smoking. Juul helped me quit.”

But Sammy notes that “everyone has an opinion, and I respect the opinions.” He “understands our business is not loved by many, but a lot of people are using it” in lobbying. Some of those politicians, he says, citing stores’ facial recognition software, come in to buy cigars. “Part of those fighting the movement are in it,” he says. “They’re against it, I understand, but it’s an adult choice.”

Asked for his reaction should the Virginia government permit sale of cannabis, Sammy said it would “not be a problem, and will kill the black market, which is a big plus.” Years ago, when marijuana was sold on the street, “You didn’t know what was in it,” as he heard first-hand from customers. Street dope could be half impurities.

If he did sell cannabis, Sammy added, he “would need to scale up” and enhance property security.

Is the Falls Church market anything special? “Businesswise, it’s not different compared with other counties or cities,” he says. “Since the vape industry started, we’ve sold more vapor than tobacco,” Beginning July 1, 2020, liquid nicotine (“vape juice”) became subject to Virginia’s tobacco products tax at a rate of 6.6¢ per milliliter.

“If I were a tobacco company,” Sammy says, “I would be afraid of vape.”

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