Smoke Island vape shop prompts community backlash

Talya Lehrich and Madelyn Shapiro

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With the vaping trend on the rise, parents and lawmakers alike want to ensure that underage users do not have access to vaping products. The opening of a new vape supply shop, Smoke Island, just blocks from Wilson, has prompted parent backlash.

Wilson parent Lisa Newman noticed the shop in late August, and immediately took action after hearing about mysterious illnesses affecting vapers and the city-wide vaping ban in San Francisco.

“I texted a couple of moms and put on Facebook my concern,” Newman said, in an effort to organize resistance to the shop, and similar shops in DC.

Newman contacted Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) Commissioner Jon Bender, who copied Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh. Cheh responded promptly, saying she was working on legislation, however her office failed to find any regulation that would prevent the business’ operation.

On October 1, Mayor Muriel Bowser released a statement about her efforts to prevent minors from purchasing vape products. The Department of Behavioral Health was directed by Bowser to expand its Curb Illegal Tobacco Sales to Minors program so that it will also include vaping and e-cigarette products. The program conducts unannounced inspections of stores to ensure that no tobacco products are being sold to anyone under the legal age. According to the statement, this action will “remind the District’s more than 800 licensed tobacco retailers that e-cigarettes and vaping products are considered tobacco products and cannot be sold to individuals under 21.”

Newman expressed her dissatisfaction with Bowser’s statement. “This is a pathetic response from the Mayor’s office of our national capital. Hundreds of illnesses and numerous deaths of young people from vaping, and all she can do is issue a statement that young people under legal age shouldn’t be buying that stuff? Outrageous.”

Owner of Smoke Island Mo Aljoumari said, “When I searched for this shop, I didn’t know that schools were here. Otherwise I would not be here.” Aljoumari emphasized that his shop follows the DC law concerning vape and tobacco products.

“We will try to do our best to prevent any students from buying products,” he said. “Our policy is according to the law, the law says that any person under 21 cannot be served any products.”

On the front door of the shop is a sign saying, “No tobacco products will be sold to any person under the age of 21 years old. You will be asked for proof of age. ‘DC Law.’” There is also a sign with information about Juul products, which warns that nicotine is an addictive chemical and that it is designed for adult smokers.

Within the store, there are some items, like water and handbags, that students can still purchase if they are under 21.

Aljoumari says he and his staff diligently check ID for every customer, but nonetheless have encountered some trouble with students.

“I had some students, and I had to push them to get out,” Aljoumari said. “If they try not to follow the law, we will call the police.”

Despite Aljoumari’s alleged strict ID policy, Wilson students have been able to purchase nicotine products at Smoke Island. One student, who chose to remain anonymous, said that they know two people who have been able to purchase products. “I feel like [Smoke Island] will increase [usage in] the people who are already users, just like getting more stuff, if it’s that accessible,” they said.

Soon after opening, parents held protests outside Aljoumari’s shop. “They said they don’t want me here,” Aljoumari said.

Newman’s agenda, however, was slightly different than the other protesters. Her objective was not specifically to shut down Aljoumari’s business, but rather gather more data on the rising trend in DC.

“I was requesting that [DC government] staff do a survey and see how many vape shops there are, because they are sprouting up very quickly,” Newman said. “There should at least be a law that [vape shops] can’t be anywhere near a school.”

Early pushback has not affected Aljoumari’s plans to give back to the community. “We will try to be part of the community. We will try to support. I’ve seen some people who are homeless, who are very poor, and we try to help,” Aljoumari said. In the meantime, with no legislation to block it, Smoke Island is here to stay.