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Holy Smokes: The Booming Vape Shop Business in Boca

Vape shops appear in abundance on Boca street corners despite the health and economic factors that come with vaping.

Kendall Ann Clark | MediaLab@FAU

Oct 11, 2023

There are 11 vape shops within a two-mile radius of Florida Atlantic University’s Boca Raton campus. Underneath the blue skies of Boca, clouds of smoke are being blown more than ever. 


Vaping in America was declared an epidemic by the CDC in 2018, and earlier this year the Food and Drug Administration sent warning letters to retailers asking them not to sell disposable e-cigarettes in fruit flavors that sound like they belong in an ice cream shop.


The long-term effects of vaping are still hard to discern because vaping has only raised concerns in a little over the last decade. However, it’s become clear that vaping is far more hazardous than previously marketed.


“Vaping can expose you to cancer-causing chemicals, and metals that are known to be toxic to your lungs, and seriously addictive levels of nicotine,” The Real Cost, a brand developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, explained on its website.


The Hook Up is one of the best-known vape shops in East Boca. In the last 10 years, they have built a name for themselves in the community. Due to their success, they have been able to expand to five different locations in South Florida, with a sixth on the way.


The Hook Up, a Boca vape shop near FAU. (Photo by Kendall Ann Clark)

“We see over a thousand people per day, about 700 are buying, the rest are friend tag-a-longs,” said Ammar Zirli, 34, the owner of The Hook Up, a shop on NW 20th St that sells everything expected from a vape shop as well as novelty and collectable items. In The Hook Up you can find out of the ordinary things like apparel, cups, snacks and incense. 


The success of a vape shop depends on the location, branding and pricing of products.


Boca in particular is a booming market. With the growth of FAU in the past few years, as well as nearby Lynn University and Palm Beach State College, there has been a powerful economic demographic created. Despite all of these being smoke-free campuses, college students are vaping more than ever, hence the abundance of vape shops. 


“About one-third of college students use electronic nicotine delivery systems,” according to a study done by Pulmology Advisor, published in September. 


In spite of that, college students are not the only ones providing business for these vape shops. They sell a range of products that bring in all types of customers. Most shops sell e-cigarettes, glassware (water pipes), other smoking paraphernalia, CBD products and in some cases merchandise like apparel, candles and posters.  


Even though shops depend on the loyalty of their customers, new ones come in everyday just due to the convenience of a store’s location. 


“Majority of your business depends on time, day, and season. It’s pretty well rounded, but day time more average customers, night time college student, weekend college student while weekday it’s working people,” says Zirli. 


While being next to a college campus is an added bonus, college students are not the only reason the stores can keep the lights on. People of all ages are going into these stores for a multitude of reasons. 


Another factor to take into account is that opening a vape shop is fairly cheap. “To open a Hook Up would cost about $25,000 being conservative,” said Zirli. But keeping up with the high business margins is what takes the most money. A lot of customers want their go-to shop to be filled with ever-changing supplies that will keep them intrigued. 


“We try to create something more than just a faceless sale,” said Tahiri. 


Zirli pointed out that The Hook Up has been able to do so well because they have created a brand and lifestyle surrounding what was once a “hippie Bob Marley vibes” into a “trap house club vibes.” They have branched out from just being a regular shop by having their team marketing side keep up with what their customers find appealing. 


The Hook Up also gives out free stickers with their logo, which they frequently change based on what is trending, as well as selling trendy bucket hats to promote the store around town. 


Lesser-known vape shops are also doing well. 


Smoking Loud, another vape shop located on NW 2nd Ave, is a prime example of this. The shop is located a tenth of a mile away from a local bar and that influences sales, since alcohol and tobacco use have a known relationship. “I have had customers [non regulars] come in before and after going there,” said Malik Tahiri, 21, a Smoking Loud employee. The number of customers who come in during a shift “could sway to more with tailgate days and events nearby,” Tahiri added.


Vape shops sell smoking paraphernalia, disposable vapes and other popular items. (Photo by Kendall Ann Clark)

Sean Silva, FAU senior, was in Smoking Loud buying his weekly vape. Silva is what would be considered a regular vaper. He said he vapes daily and buys one disposable vape a week at the price of $12. 


“Friends kept telling me to try it and now I'm addicted," said Silva.  


When it comes to pricing, shops definitely vary. Some sell more expensive products but guarantee better quality, and others have lower prices to attract more customers. 


Shops will often have sales on certain products for a period of time to boost sales. A typical vape goes for between $9-$15 and can last the average vaper about a week. 


High inflation rates have impacted spending habits for millions of Americans, all the more so for college students on tight budgets. But has it affected the consumers' urge to spend?


“I’ve seen the price increase over the time I’ve been here, but haven't seen any decrease in the usual customers that buy,” said Tahiri. 


But Zirli, who runs a competing vape shop, said the rising costs are having an impact on consumer spending. “Inflation def affected sales because customers are more careful with their spending or don’t have as much money to spend freely,” said Zirli.


Nonetheless, vape shops are thriving and the number of users of electronic cigarettes continues to climb.


“A study released today found that overall e-cigarette monthly unit sales increased by 46.6%—from 15.5 million units in January of 2020, to 22.7 million units in December of 2022,” the CDC said in a poll published in June.


An average shop's inventory includes more than the highly addictive vaping products, but a majority of their sales are for the disposable devices, merchants said in interviews.


“I'd say the most popular products would be e-cigarettes,” said Tahiri. 


The small, flash-drive size nicotine device has taken over in the smoking community. In Smoking Loud, they even offer couches and video games for customers if they want to hang out and hit their e-cigarettes. 


While it may sound like a fun way to hang out, it is important for one to take into consideration the repercussions of starting a habit that so many struggle and fail to break. It is called a vaping epidemic for a reason. 


Regardless of economic and health concerns, the popularity of vaping and smoking is creating a sustainable market for vape shops. As such, it does not appear that there will be fewer neon-lit vape providers opening and succeeding in Boca.  

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