Kapahulu’s Volcano Vapor Café offers a welcoming home for Oahu’s ‘vaping’ community

Barb Forsyth

KAPAHULU—Who says you can’t smoke at cafés anymore? I happened to notice Volcano Vapor Café one day while driving along Kapahulu Avenue. Pleased to see a new independent coffee house in my neighborhood—an unfortunate rarity here and throughout the island—I decided to pop in for a latté. 

Volcano Vapor Café, which opened three months ago, is in the same complex as the Ranch House and Hee Hing’s, so thankfully free underground parking was available. Walking in, I immediately took note of the comfy black leather couches, Billabong Pipe Masters on the large-screen televisions, and plenty of outlets laptop, iPads, and what have you. There are also two large desktop computers available for a nominal fee.

The menu offers delicious renditions of standard coffee and espresso beverages, all locally sourced from the North Shore and Kona, with a few non-caffeinated options as well. The day I was there, I noticed there was not any food for sale (though apparently that changed this week), and it was then that I realized the coffee itself was merely a supporting player to the main attraction: electronic cigarettes, otherwise known as e-cigarettes.

I took a seat at the bar and proceeded to chat with the friendly chap behind the counter, who goes by the name of Coco Vapor. It turns out that Volcano is a locally-owned business based in Kailua that manufactures e-cigarette products. A host of gadgets on the market offer variations on a basic principal, namely that of taking a flavored nicotine-infused liquid and vaporizing it. Because the process results in vapor, as opposed to smoke, “vaping,” as the activity has been termed, is technically legal in Hawaii, including public places such as movie theaters, concerts, and airports, where traditional cigarettes have been outlawed. 

Owners Joe Volcano and Magma Mike (stage names seem to be a theme here) have been leading the trend for this smoking alternative in the United States by opening the first vapor lounge of its kind in Kailua. They also have a comprehensive website that sells an assortment of their e-cigarette liquids and paraphernalia. The Kapahulu branch represents an expansion on their success, with extended hours and a neighborhood vibe. The establishment is BYOB for those who want a beer with their vape instead of coffee, and they host various events such as last Saturday’s “Blaze the Vape” surf art show, complete with live music.

Coco Vapor shared with me that he is against cigarettes. His mom is a smoker, and he can’t stand the smell of smoke. He then extolled the virtues of vaping over smoking, and the company’s intention to help people make the switch to reduce exposure to the countless carcinogens found in traditional cigarettes, save money, and possibly curb their addictions. 

In other words, vaping is viewed by some as a way to transition one’s way towards quitting. Their approximately 60 flavors and formulations are additive free and offered in various strengths, including strong, light, and nicotine free.

As far as health risks, the jury is still out. Definitely don’t discount the potential dangers just yet.

As a former smoker myself, I could see the appeal of this product despite the fact that I am unlkely to start vaping myself. Still, for research’s sake I sampled their nicotine-free Blue Water Punch, which was invented in-house. Holding the lightweight battery (the industry term for the cigarette-replacement piece), which was approximately the size and shape of a regular cigarette, and even lit up as I inhaled, it almost took me back to those days when I could sit down with friends at a table in my favorite coffee house, pack of smokes between us, and chat the night away (yes, I realize this ages me). The sweet taste of the vapor, however, was a new experience all together, but perhaps most closely comparable to smoking flavored tobacco in a hookah. 

For many ex-smokers such as me, nicotine-replacement patches or gum would have been an insufficient solution to quit, as the addiction perhaps centered more around the activity itself—needing something to do with my hands, a break from writing a paper, a social interlude—than the actual nicotine (though I was most likely addicted to that, too).

Of course, logic begs the question that if current smokers, who have essentially been reduced to the status of pariah in many circles, can now vape whenever and wherever the urge arises, will there be any motivation to quit? Coco Vapor said that indeed, there are customers who come and vape for a few weeks or months, and then are done with it.

As far as health risks, the jury is still out. Definitely don’t discount the potential dangers just yet. The FDA and various anti-smoking groups are rightfully wary of the lack of knowledge about their safety or effectiveness. Though e-cigarettes do not appear to produce the thousands of chemicals and toxicants created by tobacco combustion, nothing is really known about the chemicals present in the aerosolized vapors emanating from them and their packaging tends to be woefully lacking in warnings and information. 

Another concern is that the enticing flavors such as chocolate, pineapple, or coffee, as well as the easy access through internet sites, could attract teens that might otherwise have avoided nicotine use. A new report published by a Boston University School of Public Health, however, is claiming that they are much safer than real cigarettes and perhaps promising in the fight against tobacco-related diseases and death. 

Certainly, the trend is catching on with the burgeoning vaping community. There was a steady stream of traffic into the cafe throughout the duration of my visit, including a mother and daughter seated at the bar with me who were enjoying a vape.  he mother is a smoker trying to quit, the daughter a non-smoker. They like the cafe because the daughter, who happens to hate cigarette smoke, can vape a nicotine-free version “just for fun” while the mother gets her fix. 

To me, the merging of the generations was interesting, as was the fact that here was a place where smokers and non-smokers could enjoy each others’ company in an environment where neither group feels deprived of their personal liberties or vices. Risks or benefits aside, it will be interesting to see whether the vaping movement can help bring independent cafe culture back from the dead.

Volcano Vapor Café is open from 7:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m. daily. It is located at 449 Kapahulu Avenue, #102, (808) 734-0914. More information can be found at www.volcanoecigs.com.