Industry booming as e-cigs catch on

The electronic cigarette industry is booming as more and more smokers quit tobacco, but the future for “vaping” is uncertain, writes Dan Matthews

Though still in its infancy, the electronic cigarette industry is in the middle of a “big bang”. In stark contrast to sales of tobacco products, e-cigarettes are becoming more and more popular across Western Europe and the United States. In the UK the number of “vapers” – those who choose vapourised nicotine over tobacco smoke – is growing by 50 per cent a year, according to the Electronic Cigarette Consumer Association (ECCA).

By the end of 2013, says the ECCA, the UK will be home to around one million e-cigarette consumers, up from about 600,000 today and stacking up ever-more favourably to the ten million or so tobacco-cigarette smokers. Such has been the magnitude of the boom that a new economy has burst into life, giving rise to a universe of paraphernalia with dedicated magazines, clubs, social networks and even festivals.

Live in Utah and enjoy vaping? Then of course you should join the Utah Vapers. There are Irish Vapers, a Vapers’ Corner, a Vapor Den, an annual Vapefest; even a Planet of the Vapes (Google any or all for proof). Such is the interest in these new devices that the term “niche product” is becoming less and less applicable to them.

Now is a fascinating, if confusing, time for electronic cigarettes as crucial questions weigh on the industry that will define its future course

But while commercial opportunities push the industry forward at a quick clip, bureaucrats in Britain and elsewhere are struggling to keep up. Between the World Health Organization, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, there is no hard position on whether the emergence of e-cigarettes is a good thing or not. Even the Department of Health will not issue its formal stance until next spring, almost ten years after the products first entered the market.

Now is a fascinating, if confusing, time for electronic cigarettes as crucial questions weigh on the industry that will define its future course. Are e-cigarettes quitting devices? Are they lifestyle products? Should they be sold in newsagents, petrol stations and off-licences or in pharmacies and chemists? What are the health implications and exactly how much safer are they than tobacco?

And when all the rules have at last been defined at a national and European level, will the big tobacco companies, such as BAT or Philip Morris, make their play and throw several giant-sized cats into the assembled group of pigeons? Both of these companies, as well as others, have started to get serious about the market potential of tobacco-free nicotine products.

All of the above questions and more are still to be answered, and while uncertainty hangs in the air, the e-cigarette industry remains at times patchy and rudderless. The entrepreneurial first-movers in the e-cig business are jostling for position and a selection of new brands have made impressive inroads in a chaotic market, like prospectors in frontier days. Of these, many are lobbying for clarification from government, which would give them a firm footing from which to grow their brands, invest in advertising and reach deeper into the market.

Once the playing field has been defined, a more confident group of businesses equipped with standards and official targets to hang their hats on will no doubt continue to grow quickly with high-quality products and focused product lines providing choice for their customers.

While it’s unlikely that e-cigarettes will benefit from the same impetus that caused an explosion in tobacco consumption a hundred years ago, when powerful branding, advertising and endorsements spellbound millions of smokers, it can only become more and more mainstream. Whether we will witness Hollywood actors vaping in future films noirs or at society bashes remains to be seen.

Today is an ideal time to investigate this market and consider what happens next. The future of dozens of businesses, thousands of jobs and millions of pounds depends on it, not to mention the future health or otherwise of a legion of smokers, vapers and abstainers.