The electronic cigarette was invented by a Chinese pharmacist by the name of Hon Lik .
Hon Lik used to light up first thing in the morning. He smoked between lectures at the university where he studied Oriental medicine, between bites at lunch, in the lab where he researched ginseng health products. He’d usually burn through two packs by dusk and smoke a third over dinner and drinks with colleagues. It wasn’t until his father, also a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer that Hon finally kicked the habit.
Hon’s story could be that of any other nicotine-addicted, middle-aged man in China, where 60% of the men smoke. What distinguishes the 52-year-old pharmacist and inventor is that he found inspiration in the addiction.
His invention of e cigs hit the Chinese market in 2004. The company that formed around Hon’s creation, Ruyan, led the online selling boom that has arisen in recent years. The e-cigarette was largely unavailable in the United States until 2006, and even then only online from China.
“It’s a much cleaner, safer way to inhale nicotine,” said Hon, blowing curlicues of e-smoke as he showed off the cigarette in his Beijing office. (He says he doesn’t smoke anymore, except for such demonstrations.)
Hon got his first patent on the e-cigarette in 2003 and introduced it to the Chinese market the next year. The company he worked for, Golden Dragon Holdings, was so inspired that it changed its name to Ruyan (meaning “like smoke”) and started selling abroad.
Unlike nicotine patches and gum, electronic cigarettes are designed to be fun. The e-cigarettes aren’t marketed as a way to quit smoking, but as a smoking alternative. “It’s safe smoking — like smoking with a condom on,” said William Taskas, a Canadian e-cig distributor.
What makes the electronic cigarette more than just the latest curiosity from China is the enthusiasm it has inspired among respected anti-tobacco activists. “This is exactly what the tobacco companies have been afraid of all these years, an alternative method of delivering nicotine that is actually enjoyable,” said David Sweanor, an adjunct law professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in tobacco issues. “It took the Chinese, who are very entrepreneurial, and not burdened with all kinds of regulation, to take the risk.”
Hard to call anyone on the other side of the debate “supporters” per se; many non-users consider e-cigarettes – should they be proven safe to use – a terrific new cessation tool. Two recent studies attempted to probe the possible benefits of e-cigarette use. The first, an online study conducted by researchers from Boston University, found that a majority of respondents were able to abstain from cigarettes while using e-cigarettes. The study’s authors concluded that e-cigarettes “may hold promise as a smoking-cessation method and that they are worthy of further study using more rigorous research designs.” Another online study, this one conducted at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, found that Google searches for cessation aids showed e-cigarettes leading the pack in the U.S. and the U.K., leading the researchers to conclude that the devices were becoming increasingly popular, more so than other well-known options.
The American Association of Public Health Physicians’ Tobacco Control Task Force, a group affiliated with the American Medical Association, last year petitioned the FDA to regulate electronic cigarettes as tobacco products and not as drug delivery devices (this was before the courts eventually forced the FDA to take this route). Their position boils down to this: even if there is some risk involved in the use of electronic cigarettes, it is still significantly lower than those associated with conventional cigarettes. The AAPHP advocates the employment of harm reduction strategies to combat smoking-related illness and death, going so far as to recommend smokers switch to smokefree tobacco products like dip to mitigate the risk, despite the attendant oral cancer risks.
Ok, so we’ve heard from the experts. But what does Joe from down the street think? A 2009 international poll of more than 4600 people found that nearly half believe that e-cigs should be legal and readily available to the public. Over half of respondents also supported FDA regulation of the products.