In the last six months, about a half dozen stores selling electronic cigarettes have popped up in Pierce County, including Steampunk Vapory Lounge on St. Helens Ave. in Tacoma.
“About five years ago, it started being exported here,” said Steampunk co-owner Jim Oliver of e-cigarettes. “The first versions weren’t particularly effective, but really it’s been the past few years that it’s taken off.”
Until earlier this year, Vaporium, which opened in Lakewood in 2010, was the only store in the area, said Oliver. But it’s becoming more and more popular, particularly for those looking to quit smoking traditional cigarettes — and it’s part of the reason Oliver and co-owner Natalie Durflinger opened their store.
“I smoked years ago and it was really, really hard to quit,” Durflinger recalled. “When I quit, I never went back to it, but I found out two years ago that my 22-year-old daughter had picked up the habit.”
So Durflinger started researching ways to help her daughter quit and she came across e-cigarettes, which provide a similar sensation to smoking and can emit either a non-nicotine vaporized solution or vaporized nicotine, depending on what the user puts in it.
“I went down to check out the technology and I just fell in love with it,” she said. “I bought starters kits for both my parents and my daughter. My daughter hasn’t smoked in about a year and a half, but she vapes.”
Her daughter is now one of the small equity owners in the company she started with Oliver, who is also a partner with her in the local law firm Durflinger Oliver and Associates.
Business is going well for the two, who attributes the lack of regulations in Pierce County compared to King County as one of the reasons their business is successful.
“It’s really a burgeoning industry,” Oliver said. “The biggest reason is there’s a lot of smokers making the switch to electronic cigarettes.”
In Pierce County, e-cigarettes are prohibited in places where minors are permitted; they also can’t be sold to minors. “Other than that, it’s the Wild West,” Oliver said.
Unlike in King County, it’s legal to vape — the term for smoking e-cigarettes — inside bars, casinos and other areas where minors aren’t allowed, unless the business owner says otherwise.
“We wouldn’t be able to run this business in King County,” Oliver said. “We also sell beer and wine and hard cider and light food, some wraps and pasta salads. We wouldn’t be able to do this in another county because really, our draw is to get people indoors who want to do more than vape. We have game nights. We specifically chose Pierce County because we could kind of set up the establishment we did.”
Tim Tweten, owner of South Sound Restaurant Group, said he’s seen e-cigarettes trickling into his restaurants in the last year or so. And until someone has a problem with it, they’ll be permitted.
“We really haven’t sat down and talked about it, but we’ll allow them in the lounge, unless it alienates and bothers other people in the lounge. I would assume in bars, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal,” Tweten said.
Tweten’s office in Fife, near Poodle Dog restaurant, is next-door to the soon-to-be second Vaporium location. The new store is set to open any day now, said Tweten.