Photos and Words by Tony Ottomanelli II
“Vaping is not about Money-Making. Vaping is about Life- Saving!” That is the philosophy of Rod Santos, one of the owners of Bethesda Vapor Company, the only vape-shop in Bethesda, Maryland.
This is significant to reflect on because Bethesda Maryland is no ordinary “Small-Town-America.” Besides being one of the larger bordering towns of Washington D.C., it is quite unique for many reasons. In fact, many reasons which are unique in relation to the vaping movement.
So how is Bethesda, Maryland, unique in relation to public health? Bethesda is the location of the headquarters of the main campus of the National Institute of Health (NIH), home to the National Library of Medicine and of the National Naval Medical Center – one of the leading biomedical research centers, as well as serving as the premier healthcare facility for our Commander in Chief.
Bethesda has repeatedly ranked as one of the most educated and affluent areas in the nation – including a first place rankings on the 2014 Forbes List for America’s most educated small towns and on Time’s list of top earning cities.
Bethesda Vapor Company is located on the top floor of a former language school in the heart of downtown Bethesda. VAPE Magazine recently sat down with owners Rod Santos and Reza Noroozi for more than three hours to discuss their own business, the state of the vape scene in Washington, DC, and the vaping industry as a whole.
Santos and Noroozi shared the story of how they became involved in the brick and mortar vape business, as well as their deepening involvement in the industry as a whole. The pair, tiring of their former jobs, wanted to do something more meaningful. At the time, Noroozi, who also owned (and still owns) a sign company, had made signs and banners for more than 30 vape businesses throughout the Washington, DC-area.
Noroozi suggested to Santos and some other friends that the vaping industry might be just what they were looking for as a new venture. The business became a reality in 2014. In short order, Bethesda Vapor Company became one of Sicboy M.B.Y.C.’s top retail sellers in the nation.
The pair credits a quality staff as one of several keys to their success. In fact, a pair of employees, William Bandy and Logan Thomas, volunteer their time at the shop despite both being members of the U.S. Navy.
Being able to attract employees who are willing to work as a volunteerhat is quite impressive to say the least. Where else do people volunteer to work during their time off from work? Most volunteer work is done in order to help those who want and need serious help. It just goes to show how much Vaping has become a united movement and passionate cause. A movement of caring for others which categorizes Vaping as one of the most empathetic forms of cultural expression, a blend of consumption and compassion. A cause that millions of people around the world truly believe in, religiously.
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That is why people want to regulate and enforce restrictions on Vaping, because others genuinely feel it is an honest, truthful path to follow. Others become skeptical when they begin to notice a new behavior that is widely embraced and appears to be slightly foreign or unfamiliar to them, they immediately pass negative judgment and assume the worst. Rod states, “vaping is so controversial right now because we’re taking away business from Big Tobacco Companies which is saving lives and it’s shocking that more people don’t support it. They don’t support it because they don’t
He proceeds by saying, “what Tobacco companies do is say hey you wanna kill yourself slowly towards a soon-to-be painful death? That’s fine, good for you. I just need to make sure we get paid while you’re doing it, now how is that okay? Why are people okay with that?” Reza follows ths up with a good point, by saying, “they’re going to be prescribing eCigs medically in England, so all these ridiculous studies full of misinformation are going to have to stop eventually. How can they continue to fight and battle against vaping if medical professionals are going to be prescribing electronic cigarettes?”
For Vapes sake, I hope Reza is correct, hopefully, all the vape hate will subside once everyone opens their mind’s eye to see the truth. However, of course the company who has signed onto to be the exclusive eCig manufacturer for those who need it prescribed is a Big Tobacco company, but England is still making steps in the right direction.
Throughout the conversation, Rod and Reza kept communicating their anxieties and concerns surrounding the effects that the deeming FDA regulations could eventually have on the industry, especially small-business vape shops, which makes-up a major portion of the industry as a whole. “The thing that scares me the most are the FDA regulations” Rod says.
Rightfully so, they pretty much bother me as well, and I’m a mere consumer, I can not begin to imagine how vape-shop staffs are feeling. It sounds like this could be really bad. We as Vapers must realize that we’re competing against Big Tobacco, which is a 40 billion-dollar (40+) per year industry. Not to mention, the other major player in the game, Big Pharma, which makes over 300 billion-dollars per year globally.
Those statistics are outrageous and makes the vaping industry’s 3-4 billion per fiscal year seem miniscule. Most pharmaceutical companies pay more than that in fines each year. We need to approach this attack on vaping with patience, respect, and facts. The educating of those who don’t know anything about vaping must be studied and shared. These are important times, if we truly wish to make a positive difference in harm reduction within public health, then we must remain united and passionate by providing individuals and other groups among our social citizenry of the proper information.
When I inquired to them what is it exactly that concerns you the most, Rod states, “If the FDA controls vaping the way it controls our food, our medicine, and tobacco, then YES, I’m very concerned!” He goes onto highlight some key concepts that are necessary to reflect on. Rod goes onto to say, “the FDA oversees all the things that kill us, medicine, tobacco and even our food can be fatal.” With a passionate demeanor, Rod asks, “Why do we have higher amounts of blood and pus in our milk than most Third World Countries?”
At this juncture of our sociological discourse, I almost regurgitated after mentally picturing what Rod was describing. Regardless, Rod sticks to his guns by then asking, “What are they really doing? They control everything that kills us, vaping hasn’t killed a single person! They allow some things to go on that shouldn’t and they restrict the things that they should leave alone.” I must admit, as graphic of a picture that Rod painted, he certainly had made some intriguing points to reflect on.
Luckily, many others are embracing this technological breakthrough that could soon prove to this society that it must be recognized for its benefits in preventing tobacco related illnesses. Vapers are just ordinary people who found something to help themselves and now they want to pass what they discovered to be greatly helpful onto others, in order to assist them with avoiding smoking cigarettes. However, Rod Santos informed me that some shops in the DC area have disappointed him a great deal, “they are not geared towards weaning people off of nicotine, nor do they provide the proper information.” BVC has a consensus that they are there to tell customers the truth. “We get people off of cigarettes!” says Reza, as Rod shakes his head in agreement.
Rod then goes on to recall a situation he experienced at another vape shop where he had just began using an RDA, yet he was typically vaping 12mg of nicotine out of his vape-pen tanks (obviously this was near the beginning of
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his vaping transformation). Considering this, the vape-shoptender suggested he use an 18mg e-liquid for dripping onto his RDA since that shop was all sold-out of 12mg juices.
At the time, Rod was not aware that this was definitely ill-advised information to provide someone who just wanted to vape off a Rebuildable Dripping Atomizer. Rod states, “the highest nicotine we (BVC) would ever suggest for dripping is 6mg and most of the time we don’t even like doing that…I drip a combo of 0mg and 3mg nowadays, so it’s a smooth 1.5mg. For so long, I thought dripping with RDAs was absurdly harsh until Reza let me try the 3mg he was dripping and I realized how much better it was. I know people who drip 18mg, but that’s not the route you wanna take as a Vape Shop owner in regards to suggestions for customers. We’re here to see people consistently reduce their nicotine intake.”
Taking this into account, Reza and Rod both agree that at the Bethesda Vapor Company, they follow the belief that vapeshops, especially the local small business shops need to focus on harm reduction, guidance and educating customers. Of course, the entire industry needs to remember this notion and live by it because that is truly what the vaping community stands for. Reza declares, “these other shops should never recommend 24mg and should be turning away customers who have never smoked before. The industry has to be 95% feedback, information, education, knowledge and 5% merchandise.”
Literally, as we sat there discussing such issues, a customer came into the BVC for a visit who was currently vaping 24mg nicotine. Reza and Rod both instantly tended to her needs but also talked her down to trying 12mg, simultaneously admitting that they never recommend anything above 6mg, claiming there was no need for all that nicotine she was previously vaping. “It’s seriously unnecessary for anyone to continue with 24mg” they both told her. The customer did admit it had been somewhat strong at certain times and seemed to alter the taste of the flavor. Rod admitted to his 1.5mg concoction of juices that he continuously vapes, the customer laughed and seemed to understand what they were doing for her.
They weren’t discouraging her at all, they were helping her. Now she won’t be nearly as dependent on nicotine as she was prior to her visit to BVC. This was a great social interaction to witness and it was perfect timing for it to unfold because I was able to truly witness their mission come to life. After the interaction transpired, Reza told me “I know a number of vapers who drip anything from 12-24mg of nicotine and it is only because of misinformation they have been given.”
Overall, within, around or near the Bethesda area, mainly Montgomery County, the BVC has seen 4 other vape shops come and go, as they remain the last vape business standing in that region. Some of these vape Shops were Studio Vapes and Static Vapes, in which each one closed for multiple reasons. One shop was inside a mall, so they could longer test vapor indoors, another shop was connected to a cigar shop, clearly not in the business for the right reason, others simply were only in it for the profit possibilities, ultimately falling short. Rod says “this isn’t a money-making machine… it is a life-saving machine.” Clearly, referring to operating as a business within the vaping industry.
The BVC Staff understands and can see the effects vaping is having on human life, on a global scale and even in their own neighborhood. According to Rod and Reza, you will never see people smoking on the streets of Bethesda, but you will certainly see a number of people vaping (as long as their 20 feet from a business entrance). Rod says that “it’s all about education and customer care…if you remember the true advocacy and change, then everything will fall into place, I believe that.” Reza states, “we offer all of our customers the best option for their vaping needs, we talk to them and ask them questions to find out what kind of smoker they were or are and then we make our best informed decisions.”
In regards to this, Rod says, somewhat sarcastically, but also still serious enough, “We’re not car salesmen. We’re educators on vaping.” Then I immediately asked if they viewed their staff as more so a team of counselors and advisors? Without hesitation, they said “Absolutely!” Rod adds, “Most definitely! And we always are straight with our clientele. Honesty first and foremost. We’ll tell customers, look, we’re NOT doctors, scientists, or public health officials, but we are indeed professionals, so we have the ability to inform you of how to operate the perfect set-up for your vaping needs and/or preferences.”
Rod had to break off from the conversation momentarily to assist a customer. As Reza and I continued discussing the potential dangers that the FDA could be creating, we still agreed that this industry is unique and strong due to our unity and passion, so no matter what they choose to enforce, we thought perhaps there will be some mass protests or some type of peaceful gathering to promote the beneficial nature of Vaping and the advantages vaping has to offer smokers.
As a result, Vaping is preventing the creation of future cigarette users/tobacco abusers, which is great in retrospect, but not for the capitalist economic structure we practice nor our social system. The U.S. government relies heavily on all that revenue generated by Big Tobacco and Big Pharma. We were clearly concerned, yet not all hope was lost. I think that is what will help us in the long haul, not getting discouraged and standing up to speak out about how we have a right to continue to vape. Big Tobacco is not getting anymore of the thousands they’ve made off of me/us in the past.
Rod returned after providing another display of customer care, sending another satisfied guest out their doors. He points out that they’re able to remain in business due largely to their loyal & caring customer base, which is full of a long list of gracious “regulars.” When I asked if they were genuine in their efforts to remain hopeful by ultimately avoiding the anxiety brought on by the FDA and simply continuing to perform their jobs to the best of their abilities, they were eager to speak up.
As our sociological discourse concluded, Rod tactfully reminded me, “This is our sacrifice, this is our dream.” Reza comments, ”If we didn’t truly believe we were helping people, we would be doing something else.” Furthermore, BVC is the real deal, another smallbusiness vape-shop full of life, with a comfortable vibe throughout their entire business operation. That’s why we tend to worry so much about these regulations that could pass at any moment, because these are exceptionally professional, greatly ethical, emotionally invested, expressive with honesty, genuine human beings with passionate attitudes doing their best, the best they know how, all in the name of helping others.
Why would we want to put these kinds of people out of work? It would be outlandish to attempt to dissolve the vaping industry, as it represents so many great features of the human condition. Choosing to assist others to switch from smoking to vaping is literally one of the most empathetic careers you could pursue nowadays. All in all, I believe their mission statement was summed up by Rod Santos, when he said, at one point during our discussion, “We’re just a couple of guys, trying to save more than a couple of lives.”
Basically, Vaping is proving to be far more safe for consuming nicotine and much less dangerous than smoking tobacco cigarettes. Coincidentally, these attributes are providing more than just a fraction of hope among Vapers, more accurately, as Vaping is swiftly becoming a historical breakthrough for drastically improving the state of Public Health.
With their top-selling item being the premium e-liquid from my state of residence, Colorado, Sicboy M.B.Y.C., in which they were informed that their one of the top sellers of that e-juice flavor nationwide. Bethesda Vapor Company sells a variety of products whether that being e-liquids, tanks, batteries, clothing, mods, e-cigs, RDAs and other accessories.
Just to for an example as to why and how this particular shop is so meaningful what kind of ambiance this shop has, it must be noted that two of Rod & Reza’s best employees are literally volunteering their time to work at Bethesda Vapor Company. William Bandy and Logan Thomas both have other full-time jobs working for the U.S. Navy, yet choose to be volunteers at a Vape Shop and not just any shop, the passionate, pivotal BVC, naturally of course. Attracting volunteers is no easy feat.
– Tony Ottomanelli II