Though the butt of some pretty cruel memes and jabs, vape shops are an understated boon to Alberta's economy, proponents say. Beyond providing jobs, the industry, still largely seen as a vice in Canada, offers some economic relief to the province in unexpected ways.

The City of Calgary has no data on the number of vape shops within its limits and the Government of Alberta could, similarly, provide no insight on the matter. However, according to an email from the City of Edmonton, there are 43 active businesses within its database whose names include words relating to the activity: vape, vapour, vaper and vapor.

Further "online research" by a City of Edmonton represenative showed an additional 15 licensed vape shops in town not including the word vape or its derivatives, the email said.

“Based on our research we can confirm at least 58 licensed businesses in Edmonton that would fit the 'vape shop' description. There may be additional retail stores that would meet that description that are in operation but that did not show up in our searches,” the email said.

According to Zandran Rodriguez – founder and owner of five-year-old Edmonton-based business Planet of the Vapes– a regular, one-location vape shop, like his, employs between five and six people.

“Basically, there are lots and lots of people working [in the field],” Rodriguez said. “The entire industry was started by small businesses like vape shops and e-juice manufacturers. Many of them are operating in Alberta – even though some of them have grown large, the vape industry is still in the boot-strapping phase.”

Most of the specialist vape shops in Alberta are still locally owned which, according to Rodriguez, keeps the funds in the community.

That said, different forms of vape and vape juices are available at chain corner stores now – and many of these products are produced by large corporations instead of “mom and pop” operations, said Darryl Tempest, executive director of the Canadian Vaping Association (CVA).

Prior to large tobacco companies expanding into the market, many vape companies and producers were smaller and more local, Tempest said. This was only about eight years ago, he added. Now, big-name tobacco companies are selling their wares through a huge network of corporation-owned corner stores.

“These were people making their own devices and making their own juices because they weren't available anywhere,” he said.

“Specialty product vape shops engage in local employment. Those other, larger entities create employment like most conglomerates do – at scale and use scale to keep costs down.”

Smaller, locally owned vape shops with five or six locations will have staff, a small marketing team and some administrators. According to Rodriguez, a regularly sized store couldn't function without at least four staff, while some corner stores and gas stations operate with just one employee behind a desk.

“It's not like a liquor store; there are things that need to be explained to the customer,” he said. “It needs the human element ... They say retail is dying, but with vape shops, it's kind of the opposite. It needs that person.”

People can also purchase vape products online, but Rodriquez said those customers are likely already the ones who know what they're looking for.

On the other side of things, corner store chains tend to have these jobs elsewhere in the world, somewhere further up the distribution line, Tempest said.

The CVA estimates there are around 1,000 – 1,200 shops around the country. Right now, seeing the positive and negative effects of vaping on the economy has not been thoroughly studied, though Tempest said that something like this could come out in the next two or three years.

Between diminishing profit margins and a ban on advertising, it's hard for new vape shops to get going, Rodriguez said. Most of the competition comes in the form of huge companies that pivoted into the market.

Rodriguez added that the main goal of specialist vape stores is to cater to people looking to quit smoking. Large-scale producers, often owned by big tobacco companies, tend to be more profit-motivated, he said.

“[Vape shops] are not like gas stations or convenience stores where - a lot of vapes are sold there, but they don't have the expertise and people aren't going there to get off of cigarettes,” Rodriguez said.

Tobacco, as a generator of vice tax dollars, brings in a good deal of funding for the provinces (according to a report by Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, this revenue makes up about 2 per cent of a jurisdiction's total tax revenues), but each dollar represents added cost to the healthcare system and an allotment of funds that could be used elsewhere.

Tempest said that, as there are around seven million smokers in the country – a Statistics Canada report suggests there were closer to five million people who smoked at least occasionally in 2017 – and that smoking-related disease is the “number-one preventable form of death in Canada,” from a harm reduction standpoint, vaping can help ease the burden on the country's healthcare system.

“It's generally assumed that vaping is safer than smoking,” he said, adding that Health Canada states this on its website - which is true.

Vaping is also relatively cheaper than smoking, Tempest said. This leaves more funds in the coffers of former smokers across socio-economic classes.

“More of your disposable income goes towards food and everything else,” he said.

Trying to convince people to see vaping in this light is something of an uphill battle, he said, though the stigma surrounding it is decreasing with time.

“Anything that's seven or eight years old is still fairly new, from a developing industry point of view,” he said.

Although vaping has its detractors, its small business model - at least as it stands - has some benefits for local economies.