As electronic-cigarette shops look to expand their presence in San Francisco, a decision Tuesday on the operation of an Ocean Avenue shop that has attracted some resident opposition could signal whether other vaping shops will be welcomed in The City.
Blake He, 27, who dreams of opening Happy Vape at 1963 Ocean Ave., was granted a conditional-use permit to open the e-cigarette business by the Planning Commission in November. He says vaping helped him kick a cigarette addiction and the store represents a chance to provide for his newborn and wife while selling products that he says are in demand in the area and part of a billion-dollar industry.
But his plans for the former aquarium-store site have been put on hold after nearby resident Robert Karis filed an appeal to overturn the commission decision. The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on the appeal Tuesday. Some vape shops are currently operating in San Francisco legally because they opened before the board passed a law last year extending existing rules on tobacco sales to e-cigarettes. This is the first board vote under the new law.
“It is undesirable to have a business whose goal is to attempt to increase usage of these products and which will expose our children and students in our area to them,” Karis wrote in his appeal. “The use of e-cigarettes for smoking cessation is unapproved and they are not recommended by existing clinics for this purpose.” Karis added: “The 1900 block of Ocean Avenue needs many other businesses that will better serve the neighbors.”
The new business would have ground-floor e-cigarette sales and a 21-person basement steam stone hookah lounge. No one under 18 would be permitted inside and the shop would close at 10 p.m.
“I want to provide an alternative,” He said of his store plans. “E-cigarettes is a vehicle to ground zero for no cigarettes for me. It's worked for me. It's worked for many others.”
In an effort to satisfy opponents, he eliminated an outdoor seating area. But he still faces some opposition.
“I don't think there is anything I can say or compromise to change his mind,” He said of Karis.
He noted that with six other empty storefronts on the block, there is plenty of space for other businesses to move in.
The Food and Drug Administration has yet to regulate e-cigarettes and their health risks remain unknown. It's also unclear if the products lead to people start using traditional tobacco products. E-cigarettes are battery-operated devices that deliver nicotine, flavor and other chemicals by turning them into an aerosol that is inhaled.
The nearest vape store of its kind to Happy Vape is 1.5 miles away outside of District 7, which is represented by Supervisor Norman Yee, He said.
The Tuesday vote comes after the board adopted a cap of 45 tobacco-sales permits in each of the supervisorial districts. There are currently less than 45 tobacco outlets in District 7.
As the debate continues, He continues to pay rent for an empty space, about $4,000 a month for more than a year now.