A Brief History of E Cigarettes
The Advent of Social Smoking
Tobacco smoking has been a part of human history for an extremely long time. In the Americas, there is evidence of tobacco and incense smoking dating back as far as 5,000 BC; while in Central Asia and the Middle East, cannabis and opium have been smoked since 2,000 BC. Nevertheless, these drugs had a fundamentally religious, political and medicinal purpose, and were rarely used outside of those settings.
It was not until tobacco was introduced to Europe in 1590 by French diplomat Jean Nicot (from whom we get the word ‘Nicotine’), that smoking began its transition into a social custom, spurred by the idea that it was a healthy habit according to the now-discredited theory of the four humors in Hippocratic medicine.
The Rise of the Anti-Tobacco Movement
Since its introduction to Europe, tobacco has been met with skepticism and suspicion. However, it was not until the 19th century that true anti-tobacco movements began to take shape. In Europe, Lois Pasteur was joining the French Society Against Tobacco Abuse, and in the United States, the first Anti-Tobacco Journal saw a two decade print run.
While these groups managed to get some legislation done here and there, they were largely ignored by the population at large. In fact, cigarettes were still being advertised as health products all the way into the middle of the 20th century, and even had children’s cartoons – such as The Flintstones – hired to produce tobacco commercials.
It was not until 1948, when British physiologist Richard Doll published his first major study on smoking, that there was any solid scientific proof on the damages of smoking. Two years later, in 1950, he published another study which directly linked smoking to lung cancer and suddenly the anti-tobacco movement took off like wildfire.
Smoking, once a sign of class and glamour from Hollywood’s golden age, quickly grew into a stigmatized and scorned social practice.
The First Patent
Prompted by the growing stigma of smoking and the new evidence of the damage it causes to users, Herbert A. Gilbert – an American inventor, business school graduate and Korea veteran – figured out that combustion was a big contributing factor to the harm caused by smoking and got to work on finding a solution.
Gilbert, himself a two pack a day smoker, imagined a “smokeless non-tobacco cigarette” that replaced “burning tobacco and paper with heated, moist, flavored air”, and was granted a patent for it in 1963. Some companies showed interest in producing the device and it was even featured in the December 1965 issue of Popular Mechanics, but it never went into production.
China and the Modern Electronic Cigarette
Reportedly oblivious to the existence of Gilbert’s invention, Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik began researching his own solution to the smoking problem at the turn of the millennium.
A heavy smoker himself and with a father diagnosed with lung cancer, he began the arduous process of quitting cigarettes, finding that patches did nothing for him. By his own account, he “missed the effect of the sudden impact, the act of smoking, the sensation of smoking.”
His first prototype, created in 2001, used ultrasound vaporization console to turn the nicotine solution into a fine, cold mist. Miniaturization proved problematic, so he scratched that design and switched his focus to a heated resistance that evaporated the solution instead. This proved much more successful and was granted a patent for his invention in 2003.
Birth of the Electronic Cigarette Industry
Shortly after Lik’s patent, Golden Dragon Group, the company he worked for, got to work in producing the first commercial units. The brand new product arrived at Chinese stores in 2004 featuring only a handful of flavours.
In 2005, Golden Dragon Group began exporting to the US and Europe and changed its name to Ruyan (如烟) Group, which means “smoke-like” in Chinese. Then, in 2007, Ruyan was granted its first international patent.
During this period, many other Chinese manufacturers began producing their own version of the devices and, in some cases, creating direct copies of Ruyan’s. Many of these vendors pioneered new atomizer, tank and cartomizer technologies, as well as flavours. These improvements greatly helped electronic cigarettes penetrate into western markets.
Bans, Regulation and Controversy
For its first few years in the western market, electronic cigarettes were mostly an obscure hobby that some smokers and tech buffs enjoyed. However, by 2008 they had gained enough traction that they drew attention from the FDA, the World Health Organization and several anti-smoking organizations worldwide, not to mention a tobacco industry forced into a defensive and overprotective position after decades of attacks on their bottom lines.
In 2009, two studies came from the FDA and Health New Zealand, both proving through their data that electronic cigarettes are considerably less harmful than traditional cigarettes. In a panic caused mainly by anti-tobacco groups, several countries across the world banned the sale and distribution of the devices, including Brazil, Mexico, Israel, Australia and others. In the United States, the FDA even placed a temporary embargo on electronic cigarette imports until the federal court of appeals ruled the FDA cannot block imports of electronic cigarettes and may only regulate them as tobacco products.
All the while, myths and misconceptions about electronic cigarettes and the dangers they pose began circulating in the news media and anti-tobacco organizations.
While still a niche product, electronic cigarettes began gaining popularity in 2010. In part due to word of mouth and in part due to media endorsements, such as the 2010 movie ‘The Tourist’, starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie.
By 2011 more studies had been performed across the globe, with some confirming the lower risks of the devices versus traditional tobacco, and others declaring them as “unsafe and posing unknown health risks.” Other pieces of research included studies proving a much higher efficiency in smoking cessation using electronic cigarettes when compared to traditional pharmaceutical products or ‘cold turkey’ methods.
Many prominent voices in the medical and scientific community, such as Dr. Michael Siegel, from the Boston University School of Public Health and Prof John Britton, chairman of the Royal College of Physicians Tobacco Advisory Group, endorsed electronic cigarettes as a less harmful alternative to traditional smoking, and stating that they “have the potential to save lives.”
While endorsements from authorities in health and science are great, perhaps the biggest catalyst on the growing popularity of electronic cigarettes was celebrities. Johnny Depp, Katherine Heigl, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ronnie Wood, Catherine Zeta Jones, Simon Cowell, Katy Perry and many others have, ironically, brought a modern flare to vaping reminiscent of the bygone glamour smoking had during Hollywood’s golden age.
Looking into the Future
With the growing popularity of electronic cigarettes, despite the current threats of bans and prohibitions – particularly in the EU – one would be naïve to think they are going away any time soon. Indeed, even large tobacco companies like Lorillard (Newport, Kent), Philip Morris (Dji Sam, Marlboro) and R. J. Reynolds (Camel, Winston) have been buying out electronic cigarette companies, heavily investing in them or creating their own.
Even some anti-tobacco organizations have switched focus from fighting against and attempting to ban the devices to embracing them under the idea of ‘tobacco harm reduction.’
Some of the new research has even focused on the effects of nicotine by itself, without the other particulates and chemicals usually associated with smoking. These studies have found that nicotine can actually have a positive effect on patients with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and chronic depression.
What challenges and innovations the industry takes on from this point is anyone’s guess, but the fact is vaping is here to stay.