The future of vaping, at the current moment, is hazy. (Excuse the pun.)
Regulations have finally rolled out in Europe and the US, threatening to turn the entire industry on its head. Meanwhile, research into the health and social impacts of vaping is starting to ramp up, raising more questions about whether vaping is a gateway to smoking for teens and how best to minimize risk for vapers using e-cigarettes to quit tobacco. Public health experts are divided, vapers are becoming political activists, and Big Tobacco continues to dip its fingers in the vaping honeypot, with questionable intentions.
We've come a long way from 2003, when the very first e-cigarette design was patented in China by Hon Lik, a pharmacist who was trying to quit smoking. Sometimes when the future looks so uncertain, it helps to cast our eyes back to where we've been. So late one night, I called up Lik in Beijing. With the help of a translator arranged by his employer, we had a chat about what he sees as the future of the industry he fathered. (Lik works as a consultant for Fontem Ventures, the parent corporation that owns blu e-cigarettes as well as the tobacco company Imperial Brands.)
Motherboard: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today. To begin, maybe you can tell me the story of how you invented the e-cigarette?
Hon Lik: It's a long story, but let me try to give you a simple version. I started smoking when I was 18 years old. At that time, I was working in a rural area and I used cigarettes because I was working very hard and very far away from my parents and my family. It was quite lonely, so the cigarettes became my good friend.
Eventually, I went back to the city to university and studied to be a pharmacist. My workload was ever increasing, so my consumption of cigarettes went along with it. I truly understood smoking's harm to my health, so after awhile I thought "because I'm a pharmacist, maybe I could use my knowledge to develop something that could help me stop smoking."
I found nicotine patches, and used those for a while, but they were not really helping. This was the turning point. I decided to use my knowledge to develop an alternative product.
And that's when you created the e-cigarette?
I officially started developing this alternative device [in] 2002. I understood as a pharmacist that nicotine delivery from a patch is very different from smoking: the patch delivers nicotine in a steady stream through skin into the blood, but it will stay stable for a long period of time. When you are burning tobacco and inhaling nicotine it can quickly go in the lung and the blood and achieve a punch that is very satisfactory. I started looking for the best way to mimic the smoking sensation.
Just because I understood this in theory didn't mean I could easily find a solution.
At that moment there wasn't any information or materials to easily find. I had a long period of failure. Every day when I woke up I had a new idea on how to improve the device or the material. Every week I was coming up with an improved model. In 2003, I registered the patent in China, the US, and also in the EU.
"I expected the success to be huge."
Did you know that there was a market for this?
After launching on the Chinese market, the success was huge. I received a lot of enthusiastic reaction from consumers as well as a lot of positive comments. This helped to achieve further success in Europe. I realized my dream came true with not only helping me give up smoking but also to bring a benefit to billions of people, expanding their lives. It confirmed that this was not only an individual dream, but will benefit public health.
Did you ever expect it to be as big as it has become, though?
To be honest, yes. I expected the success to be huge and because of this belief it was actually my motivation to go through a very lengthy and harsh development [period].
I know you quit smoking using your e-cigarettes. Do you still vape?
Most of this time I'm using my e-cigarettes, but as a developer, because there are also new ideas, I can not lose the sense of taste [for cigarettes]. Sometimes when I find a new [tobacco] product, some kind of a new taste or mix, I will buy one pack and smoke a few cigarettes so I do not lose the sensitivity.
What do you make of the wide variety of e-liquid flavors on the market? Like dessert and candy flavors?
For the specific flavors you mentioned about candy and food, I have of course tasted these. However, I am a smoker so I don't like it because I am used to the tobacco taste. But I also understand that the majority of e-cig consumers are ex-cigarette users, so the majority are not keen on this kind of flavor. Maybe a certain very small group of individuals would use this kind of flavor as a fashion product.
Actually, at least here in the US, the flavored products are really popular, even among former smokers. They tell me it helps them to stay off cigarettes.
Thank you for the information. I understand. I think probably that Americans consume more sugar products than the Chinese population. That might be a possible answer for this phenomenon.
That could be true! Speaking of the US, what are your thoughts on the new regulations we're dealing with here?
You probably mean the deeming regulations. This is a positive. This will increase the confidence in this category of products, as well as the manufacturing standards will be improved. However I also feel that this might put more restrictions on the innovation side which will have a negative impact.
Having said so, I also strongly believe … regulatory environments might improve as well because regulations are more or less behind the movement of consumer market.
There's a lot of concern that these regulations might kill off many companies in the meantime.
At this moment, if you're talking about blu [one of the brands at the company where Lik now works], it's very well positioned in this new regulatory environment. There are many brands available on the market at the moment, but fancy packaging is not really the solution. What's more important is the content, standard, and safety of product.
In terms of choices, as a pharmacist, ex-smoker, and developer, I am very keen to recommend closed systems [like cig-a-likes]. It's not only because of my intellectual property, but more importantly it's a product people consume through their mouths and inhale into their lungs, so the safety is very important.
What are your thoughts on the DIY industry that's blossomed?
Because the consumer does not fully understand the scientific perspective or standard for assembly, obviously there is a risk there. I know this is a small group on the market doing so. I do not recommend that.
Thanks for your time. Is there anything else you'd like to add?
I have one thing to add and that is the following: in the beginning the e-cigarette received a lot of attention because it was a new concept and the potential it brings to society—the potential as an alternative and less harmful product compared to burning tobacco.
I'm very happy to see that and it's very normal to receive doubts or discuss new technology, standards, and safety.
Having said that, the media from everywhere in the world seems sometimes more focused on sensational news rather than going in-depth to understand this new product and its potential. The discussion I would like to have is how to improve the technology available, how to improve the standards, how to further reduce the risk, and improve the product. I want to improve the awareness so that billions of consumers could benefit from this new product.