From ‘electro fag’ to e-cigarette

The uptake of “vaping” has been phenomenal. In the first few years after 2006, when the first-generation devices arrived in the UK, market growth was estimated to be around 500 per cent, settling over the last two years to a conservatively estimated 50 per cent.

“The market up until now has been minimal because the people behind the businesses have been amateurs and small entrepreneurs,” claims Chris Price, founder of the E-Cigarette Consumer Association. “But since then more professionalism has followed with more awareness. There’s a need to get across the message that ‘vaping’ isn’t just going on in a back room in Penge, but is big everywhere.”

According to Mr Price, the single clear and powerful driver is “that smokers want to consume nicotine, but don’t want the smoke”, as he puts it, and now there are growing numbers of devices that allow that. He goes so far as to say that the mere existence of an alternative to smoking guarantees market growth. Take the example of Snus, a chewable tobacco available in Sweden, which has seen users grow in number to double the number of smokers over the last few decades.

On the other hand, there is a mountain of misinformation from large pharmaceutical companies with their interests in nicotine replacement therapies, as well as from legislation, says Mr Price.

Smokers want to consume nicotine, but don’t want the smoke

That battle of study and counter-study, which has yet to be played out conclusively, possibly did not occur to Hon Lik, the pharmacist-inventor who takes the credit for developing the first e-cigarette, in Beijing in 2003. He had a self-interested, or perhaps social, incentive: a smoker himself, he had also seen his father die of lung cancer.

Greg Carson, a British businessman, introduced the product to Europe under the questionable “Electro Fag” name.

Perhaps neither could have predicted how the market would rapidly evolve, not just in terms of size, but in sophistication and culture. Manchester, for example, recently saw the roll out of E Lounge Vaping, the UK’s first dedicated e-cigarette retailer, which claims a 95 per cent success rate in converting its shoppers from traditional cigarettes.

“It’s going to be huge,” says founder Phil Hodson, among those who want a healthier alternative to smoking. He aims to have four stores by the end of the year.

“There’s been an assumption that smokers want something that mimics the appearance of a cigarette,” explains Oliver Kershaw, owner of the Electronic Cigarette Forum. “But we’re already seeing a graduation on to larger, more powerful devices that better mimic a more rounded cigarette experience, but without the more harmful aspects. Many users don’t just want a hit of nicotine.”

They also want the feeling of the vapour hitting the back of their throats. “They want to blow smoke rings, too,” says Mr Kershaw.

“Technical innovation is advancing on a monthly basis,” adds Dave Dorn, founder of Vapour Trails TV, the UK’s first online “vaping” TV channel. “But it’s pretty clear that e-cigarettes will be mainstream within two years – even major tobacco companies are moving to get into it now – and, with their marketing clout, it has to happen. With the increased cost and social pressures of traditional smoking, the timing is ideal.”