The number of electronic cigarette stores in Koreatown has spiked in the last year despite increasing regulations and debate over the safety of the new devices., according to data provided by City officials. With over 210 stores selling tobacco products, Koreatown already has one of the highest concentrations of tobacco retailers in Los Angeles, and the recent increase in electronic cigarette stores is attributed to its high density and foot traffic as well as the high number of smokers in the area, particularly among Koreans.
According to the City, there are currently 4,840 retailers with a permit to sell tobacco products in Los Angeles. Out of all City Council Districts, Council District 10 has the fourth highest number of permits at 391, and Council District 13 has the third highest number of permits at 405.
While Koreatown only takes up a small fraction of each Council District geographically, it has over 210 permits, or almost one-fourths, of all tobacco retailer permits in those two Districts, according to Koreatown News’s analysis of data provided by the City. While the City does not track the different types of tobacco products sold by these retailers, many Koreatown residents have observed a spike in the number of stores selling electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, in the last year. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration defines e-cigarettes as battery-operated products that turn nicotine, flavor and other chemicals into an aerosol for the user to inhale. The safety of e-cigarettes is still hotly debated, and the City voted twice in recent months to increase regulations on these new devices, but according to many of the new e-cigarette stores in Koreatown, the e-cigarette business is booming.
Arthur Heo, owner of The Vape Shop on 125 N. Western Ave., said that sales have increased every month since he opened his e-cigarette store four months ago. He said he chose to open his shop in Koreatown because he grew up in this neighborhood and considers it home.
In another e-cigarette store Vape Star, located on 703 S. Vermont Ave., manager Matt Kim declined to give exact figures but said that “the e-cigarette business is great.” Vape Star opened one year ago, and Kim said that the owners chose to open their store in Koreatown because of the high density and level of foot traffic here. He said another reason so many e-cigarette stores are opening in Koreatown may be due to the high number of Koreans here.
“There are a lot more [e-cigarette shops] in Koreatown, and I think it might be to serve Koreans, who tend to smoke a lot,” he said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 18.1% of U.S. adults aged 18 and older were cigarette smokers in 2012. Koreans have the highest percentage of smokers among Asians at 26.6%. Koreans also have the highest percentage of female and male adult smokers, at 20.1% and 37.4% respectively.
Last December, the Los Angeles City Council voted to make e-cigarette sellers obtain a tobacco retailer permit like sellers of regular cigarettes. Then in March of this year, the City Council voted to ban the use of electronic smoking devices in areas where smoking tobacco is currently prohibited by law, making an exception for e-cigarette lounges and retail stores as well as theatrical production sites where e-cigarettes may be used to simulate tobacco smoking.
Despite the increase in sales reported by local e-cigarette stores, not all smokers seem to be going electronic. John Lee works at the Vapor Bar located on 4051 W. Third St., which opened one year ago. Lee said that while his customers are very diverse, most of his Korean customers are between the ages of 20 and 40, and he sees few older Koreans switching to e-cigarettes. He said the e-cigarettes may be too much work for older generations who are not as technologically sophisticated.
“There are a lot of moving parts [in e-cigarettes], and it might be too much work for older generations if things break down,” he said.
Robert Khatcherian, who works in 3rd St. Smoke Shop, said that even those who switch to e-cigarettes often do not use them for long.
“There was so much hype, the hype was crazy… and then it died down and people went back to regular cigarettes,” he said.