• April 22, 2024

Split Decision

 Split Decision

VapeX in Split, Croatia recently celebrated 10 years of helping smokers switch.

By Norm Bour

When people want to know about the European vape industry, they normally refer to the Big Three countries: France, Germany and Italy. Let’s face it—these are also the most populated EU nations and most popular tourism destinations, and even though they are “over there,” many Americans consider them just foreign versions of America. And let’s not talk about the United Kingdom, which is trying to find its own place in the world post-Brexit …

Europe consists of 44 countries, per the United Nations, though some are debatable since they straddle Europe as well as Asia. Eastern Europe, which encompasses many of the formerly Soviet bloc nations that abandoned communism in the early 1990s, is in a class by itself since they are not quite as economically developed as Western Europe, though they are picking up speed.

Eastern Europe, specifically Croatia, from where I am writing this report, is part of the world I love the most. And they do have vape shops, as well as CBD shops, so I wanted to get a snapshot of the vape space over here.

We were lucky enough to find VapeX right up the street from where I am staying, the oldest vape shop in Split, and probably one of the oldest ones in Croatia since it just celebrated its 10-year anniversary last year. That puts them in the olden days, even compared to many U.S. shops.

Owner Igor Eberhardt, 51, has as much passion for vaping as anyone I’ve ever met. Like many, he is not a vaper, nor was he a smoker; he is a guy with deep convictions about the benefits of vape as a smoking cessation device.

VapeX was started in 2010 by Teo Dogas, a former professional water polo star who was part of the Croatia National team that won the World Championship in 2007. One of its sponsors was a brand new vape liquid company, Ovale, from Italy, and when Dogas ended his career, Ovale offered him a job.

Though Dogas was not a smoker, he did believe in the benefits of vaping, so he opened this shop in Split, which initially sold only Ovale liquid. It was the first vape shop in Split and probably one of the first in Croatia if not in all of Eastern Europe.

Dogas later brought Eberhardt in as a partner, and a few years ago another partner, Mark Williams, joined them. Williams, who came from the U.K. vape scene, brought in a whole new dynamic, and they started carrying other liquids from around the world.

Over the years, they have attempted to open other locations, but onerous regulations in Croatia made it challenging. They still also have a shop and distro in the U.K. “We are not treated equally here in Split,” Eberhardt said. “While most businesses can operate freely and openly, we must keep our windows covered with a film that almost makes us look like a sex shop. We also have to cover our shelves occasionally, which takes away the beauty of our selections.”

The company did not receive assistance during the Covid-19 pandemic either. “Many, if not most businesses here, were given some breaks to help them through the pandemic, but we were not. We got no tax benefits, no compensation, and we were shunned, along with just a few industries, like casinos, which also got no help.”

He also mentioned that the Croatian government, like most governments worldwide, views his operation as a tobacco shop, which never gets much respect or help. The problem here, like in many European countries, is that smoking and tobacco are part of the culture, the heritage. The smoking population is slow to adapt since many have been smoking since childhood with the total acceptance of their parents and family.

Of course, this is not just a European legacy but is prevalent in the Middle East, parts of the Far East and Latin America too. Old habits die hard, and it may take generations for vaping to equal or surpass tobacco usage in Croatia.

I asked about the company’s clientele, who are generally middle-aged and split almost equally between male and female, but he confessed, “Women seem to be more open to alternatives, and they are starting to understand that smoking is not sexy anymore.”

As an unmarried man, Eberhardt personally chooses not to date smokers and tries to share his passion for vaping with them.

“The problem is, most Croatian smokers are not aware of the dangers—or of the alternatives,” he shared, “and most don’t care. In many cases, people don’t want to talk about the dangers of smoking, almost as though they don’t want to admit that they have been ignorant of the health risks.”

This sounds like a don’t ask/don’t tell mindset, and even after sharing with his customers that smoking is five times more expensive, that does not always sway them. Partner Williams, in addition to the new product mix, also brought along new education.

The shop formerly got most of its inventory from the U.K., but that country’s departure from the EU has complicated trade, so now it imports from other countries, especially from Malaysia and the Far East.

As for the company’s brands mix, it proudly carries about seven of the top 10 international flavors and usually sees American e-liquid brand Glas as its top seller followed by Fizzy Juice and Empire Brew, which are all fruit flavors. That has been a noteworthy trend to the VapeX owners as fruity flavors have replaced tobacco flavors, and for now, all are legal.

Other bestselling brands in the shop are Dinner Lady, Pachamama, Charlie’s Chalk Dust and Don Cristo, a premium Canadian tobacco flavor. VapeX also specializes in short-fills and is an exclusive distributor of the popular Mr. Vape brand.

Croatian vape shops have been growing quickly over the past few years, and to stay ahead of the crowd, VapeX plans to open a lounge where people can hang out and get educated, according to Dogas.

We talked about “other products,” and he confirmed that cannabis is still illegal, though CBD is not. But the company carries only a few bottles of liquid while the local CBD-only shop stays away from vape products. It seems they have set an agreeable compromise and avoid each other’s turf.

The future looks promising for Split’s largest vape shop. It adheres to the EU Tobacco Product Directive (TPD) regulations, as does the rest of the EU and U.K., and they all operate on the same level ground. The owner’s hope is that TPD opens up the market even more and that the Croatian government finally recognizes what a benefit vaping offers over tobacco.

Norm Bour is the founder of VapeMentors and works with vape businesses worldwide. He can be reached at norm@VapeMentors.com.