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Tech by VICE

Tobacco Tech: This Startup Wants To Make Smoking Cool Again (Q+A)

The way things are going, what with the economy and health care and cultural taboos and "Obama quitting":, cigarettes are going to...

by Harry Cheadle
Mar 25 2011, 7:52pm

The way things are going, what with the economy and health care and cultural taboos and Obama quitting, cigarettes are going to essentially be illegal in the US within five years. Big tobacco is responding to the 21st-century version of Prohibition by pushing chewing tobacco on its nicotine-dependent customers.

But there's also been a pack of recent companies making smokeless pure-nicotine-delivery tubes called e-cigarettes, which have been marketed as an aid for smokers who want to quit. Unfortunately, these (somewhat dubious) claims have led to a messy debate over e-cigarettes, and New York state is considering banning them. Will we be able to suck on a stick filled with tobacco in public again?

Maybe, if James Monsees has his way. James is the co-inventor, with Adam Bowen, of the Ploom, which is a cross between an e-cigarette and a pipe. Insert a proprietary pod of real tobacco (e-cigarettes use pure nicotine and flavoring) and hit a button to start a butane-powered process to superheat it and turn it into vapor that you can inhale. You may look like you’re sucking on a giant USB stick, but you’re getting your buzz without that pesky smoke.

It's odorless, doesn't pump any harmful chemicals into the air, and isn’t governed by the laws that have pushed smokers literally out into the cold. Theoretically, you could suck on a Ploom on the subway or in a restaurant and no one could do anything about it. The Ploom is either the solution to all of smokers' problems, or the tobacco industry's version of the Segway. I recently got my hands on one and called James at his San Francisco office to learn more.

Motherboard: How did you and Adam hatch the idea to create this weird smokeless pipe?

James Monsees: The two of us were in a graduate program called product design at Stanford and it's a pretty intensive program, and we had this great building in the middle of campus… We basically lived at this place. Because we were working all the time, smoking was relatively prevalent. There were quite a few smokers in our program and people who picked it up, they were stressed out, they needed something to do.

Long work hours and smoke seem to go together.

Yeah, exactly. Adam would go out to have cigarettes… He would have a cigarette and I wouldn't but I'd stand out there with him or I'd have one and remind myself why I didn't really like cigarettes. We started talking about why cigarettes are such a failure these days.

Well, why do you think cigarettes are such a failure?

They're a traditional product that really hasn't had any innovation since the 1950s, with the filtered cigarette – if you can call that innovation. Back then, people in general didn't understand that there were a lot of toxic chemicals that were released from different engineering processes and people cared a lot less about smells, it was just more of a social norm to be around things that smell. We've become hypersensitive to our health and it's done a lot of for us, in terms of our longevity and our general wellbeing, but we haven't created new consumer rituals to replace those that are being displaced. So somebody's got to do that.

Did part of your idea have anything to do with the social stigma that's been surrounding cigarettes these days?

Smoking used to be a socially acceptable, even popular, cultural ritual. The luxury of smoking is something that has trickled away over time. There are plenty of other countries where that luxury still exists, but it's going away pretty quickly in the US. And that's a shame because that's the beauty of smoking: the luxury ritual, the social aspect of smoking. Nobody gets into smoking because they're told that nicotine is a great drug, right? The thing that drives me crazy is that we've lost track as a community and let the addictive nature of cigarettes define cigarettes. It's a ritual product and that's the really attractive aspect of smoking.

The big benefit of the plume is there's no secondhand smoke, right?

There's no first hand smoke! The Ploom just heats the tobacco at regular temperate and just volatizes the nicotine and flavor and other compounds you want. It's a very simple process; it's low temperature vaporization. Since the 1950s actually that's been known to tobacco companies as a safer delivery system. The problem is that they own the cigarette iconography. So to introduce anything that isn't a white stick is potentially like shooting yourself in the foot.

But now there are a bunch of people making cigarette alternatives, like the e-cigarette.

Personally, I don't think e-cigarettes are very viable. I don't really enjoy the experience of using electronic cigarettes, but the popularity of electronic cigarettes is extremely telling about how desperately there is a need for products outside the traditional tobacco space.

The real problem with electronic cigarettes is – because they don't have intellectual property protection – it's essentially open season and there are literally hundreds of these electronic cigarettes companies. There's no real brand recognition between them so the only way for them to compete with each other is to make blatant health claims, and that is in clear violation of FDA regulations. The electronic cigarettes have been completely cracked down on from making public claims. I think it's actually today that electronic cigarettes are being considered for being banned in New York.

The Ploom though, doesn't make any health claims. The one you sent me says "Beta" on it. Is it still in beta testing?

It's the first version for what we envision for one of the futures of smoking. And we don't want to stop until we've changed the industry. So currently it's our first generation product, it's a great product but it's a little finicky. Butane in general is something that I think consumers are not generally used to.

Yeah, that was one of my problems with my Ploom, I didn't fill it up correctly at first and it wouldn't turn on.

Exactly, so we'll be introducing new products this year that will address the consumer issues so that they're very easy to use and much more consumer friendly. I can't talk about them right now though.

OK, last question: If weed were legalized, would you start manufacturing pods filled with marijuana instead of tobacco?

Well in California and to some degree in New York, marijuana is legal as a medicinal product. So we are actively pursing that possibility and my guess is that if legalization does occur we will be at the forefront of offering appropriate products to consumers. And in the meantime we're definitely well aware of consumer interest in cannabis and definitely not shy of it.

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