In the beginning there was a bet

A Chinese scientist, who was wagered he couldn’t quit smoking, is credited with developing electronic cigarettes which were adapted for the UK market, as Rebecca Hobson discovers

Chances are you’ll have already spotted them. While smokers huddle outside battling wind, rain and dirty looks, sidestepping butts and putting their fags out in sodden overflowing ashtrays, “vapers” sit in comfort and puff on what resembles a hybrid of a pen, eye-liner and cigarette.

For the uninitiated, “vapers” “vaping” and “vapology” is the new lexicon of electronic cigarettes or e-cigs as they’re also known. Tobacco-free and entirely smokeless, vapers simulate the smoking experience by inhaling nicotine, but emitting vapour instead of smoke, and the red light at the end of an e-cig is actually a glowing LED bulb – nothing burns.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a passing fad. Easy, if it weren’t for reports by the industry’s trade body, the Electronic Cigarette Industry Trade Association (ECITA), that the take-up of e-cigs is rising by as much as 30 per cent a month. Estimates for growth in the industry vary wildly, but few would deny it’s getting bigger all the time.

In fact, ECITA’s president Katherine Devlin is so confident of their popularity, she claims: “There’s a real chance we’ll be overtaking tobacco within five years.”

Ms Devlin’s predictions may not be quite as outlandish as they first appear. The anti-smoking charity, Action on Smoking and Tobacco (ASH), says the proportion of smokers using electronic cigarettes has more than doubled, from 3 per cent in 2010 to 7 per cent in 2012. While the percentage of those trying one for the first time has now doubled from 9 per cent of smokers two years ago.

The price of the wager is unknown, but sources inside the industry claim it to be a vast amount of money

How to control and regulate this exponential growth has health bodies concerned, and for good reason. On the one hand, advocates of e-cigarettes believe they could help smokers cut down their smoking – even quit altogether – while their opponents, concerned about how safe they are, have banned them in countries such as Canada, Australia and Brazil.

And while there’s unlikely to be a ban in the UK, electronic cigarettes are currently subject to self-regulation only and are not classified as nicotine replacement therapy aids. Instead, there exists much debate as to how they should be regulated, a debate that will come to a head in May next year when the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) decides whether to make them subject to licensing requirements.

The uncertainty that shrouds e-cigarettes and their consequent ban in some countries has much to do with their Chinese origins. While it recently emerged that the first patent for a smokeless cigarette was issued to an American named Herbert A. Gilbert in 1965, his designs were never brought to market and it wasn’t until the early-noughties that the Chinese scientist, Hon Lik, patented and developed the first electronic cigarette we know today.

Like many Chinese men, he was a heavy smoker. So heavy in fact, the chairman of his company (a rich businessman) bet him he couldn’t quit the habit. The price of the wager is unknown, but sources inside the industry claim it to be a vast amount of money and, determined to win, the scientist went away and developed the first electronic cigarette.

In 2004 his company, Ruyun, introduced the first e-cigarette to the Chinese market. But it was slow to protect its patents. Within months, China’s copycat economy saw dozens of manufactures develop imitations. China’s lax intellectual property (IP) laws and lack of licensing regulation meant new models were released quickly, and a fertile ground of innovative competition saw this nascent industry bloom.

Four years later, electronic cigarettes arrived in the UK. One of the first importers was Nikhil Nathwani of Nicocig. Mr Nathwani had read about Hon Lik, flew to China to meet him and soon began importing his e-cigs.

At the time, Mr Nathwani says the biggest challenge he faced was convincing smokers to try the product – “smokers were bombarded by nicotine replacement therapies, they just weren’t interested” – and there were problems with the e-cigarette’s design too.

The original Chinese model worked on a three-piece basis; each e-cigarette comprised of a battery, a cartridge containing the nicotine solution and an atomiser – the heating element that vaporises the solution.

Mr Nathwani’s team soon realised that as independent units, the atomisers were too susceptible to damage. Expecting customers to fork out for a new atomiser each time theirs broke just wasn’t sustainable. So Nicocig developed a model that built the atomiser into the cartridge, meaning customers were automatically issued new atomisers every time they changed their cartridge. Mr Nathwani claims this to be one of the major developments within the industry and says many manufactures have been quick to adopt this two-piece approach.

Today Nicocig is one of the largest suppliers of e-cigs in the UK. But while Nicocigs can be found at Tesco, Superdrug and an array of independent stockists, there exists alongside them a cottage industry of small-time “vapologists” creating nicotine releasing devices which often don’t resemble cigarettes at all.

It’s these small-time producers that many worry will suffer if the MHRA introduces licensing requirements next spring. And while many larger players welcome regulation, they urge the MHRA bring it in “responsibly”, over a three to five-year period, and admit it will be costly – a factor that could push these smaller producers out of the market.

Meanwhile, Professor Gerry Stimson, a world expert on tobacco harm reduction, believes it is only a matter of time before tobacco companies start moving into the industry in a big way. “I think it’s very interesting that the solution to smoking could come from the tobacco industry itself and that’s very difficult for people in public health to accept,” he says.

Some tobacco companies are reluctant to divulge what products they have under development, a resistance shared by their e-cig competitors. But one thing’s certain, e-cigs are here to stay; this isn’t an industry going up in smoke.