The Day After Tomorrow

Smoking ruins your teeth, gives you a cough, makes you smell and then kills you.

It always has and it always will. The perils of smoking have been common knowledge for decades but so addictive is this habit that most smokers have tended to opt for a premature demise rather than quit.

With millions of people stuck between a rock and a hard place, a solution to their torment was always going to present a wonderful commercial opportunity. Sure enough, the drug companies sent scientists scurrying to their laboratories and they came up with a succession of patches, gums and sprays to alleviate smokers’ nicotine cravings.

If you could endure the disgusting, gag-inducing taste of the gum or the itchy skin rashes delivered by the patches, these quitting aids did improve the likelihood of success by a percentage point or two. But discovering that your chance of quitting had been elevated from bugger all to the proverbial cat in hell’s was frankly of little comfort.

Escape to Victory... with Quitting Aids

There was certainly a fundamental problem with gums and patches. They replaced the nicotine but they did nothing to address the smoking ritual or the throat hit. An addiction to smoking was never just about the nicotine. It was about taking the cigarette out of the packet, lighting it, savouring it, having something to hold and that familiar feeling at the back of the throat.

Smokers were dropping like flies and inflicting an enormous financial burden on healthcare services across the globe. A quitting aid which actually worked and enabled smokers to escape their addiction would have been the holy grail but where was Sir Lancelot when they needed him? All governments should have been throwing unlimited resources at the scientific community to find a way for smokers to win their battle, but they did no such thing.

Always dictated to by the big tobacco companies, and probably in fear of losing tax revenue, governments did little or nothing.

Which is extremely provoking when you consider that the solution was staring everyone in the face. In fact, it was actually sticking out of smokers’ faces. What they really needed wasn’t nicotine replacement it was a replacement cigarette.

Failure to Launch... a Viable Product

In the years after the dangers of smoking were first recognised, technological advances enabled us to build spacecraft and to fly at twice the speed of sound. Many years ago we arrived at the point where the phones in our pockets boasted more computing power than it took to get Neil Armstrong to the moon. But nobody had managed to come up with a simple device that smokers could suck on!

The answer might have been staring everyone in the face but clearly nobody was looking. Until, that is, a Chinese pharmacist called Hon Lik tried to give up smoking himself after his father died of lung cancer. This unlikely hero turned out to be the knight in shining armour that everyone had been waiting for.

A Nightmare on Smoking Street

Hon Lik (pictured left) was trying to evolve a simple and effective way for people to take traditional Chinese remedies. He was also trying to quit smoking using nicotine patches. He woke up one morning after a particularly bad night during which he had suffered a series of nightmares. He realised that he had fallen asleep wearing his nicotine patch and he felt that it was imperative to find a better way to quit. And if you want something done properly……….

His first concept utilised vaporisation by ultrasound but the equipment was cumbersome and the droplets formed were too large. He turned to resistance heating which achieved the right result but he needed to fine tune the nicotine and flavour delivery whilst scaling down the device to something approaching the size of a cigarette.

Hon Lik then hit on the idea of using a high-frequency piezoelectric ultrasound-emitting element. This enabled the creation of a hand-held device which delivered a pleasing vapour with a sufficient hit of nicotine. Not something that the average smoker could ever have knocked up in their shed!

First Blood for Electronic Cigarettes

The patent was filed in 2003 and the first electronic cigarette was produced and marketed a year later. This innovation should have made headline news across the globe. Smokers everywhere ought to have been having parties to rival Jamie Vardy’s and Hon Lik might reasonably have expected a Nobel Prize. But Jamie Vardy’s wedding got more publicity than the arrival of the electronic cigarette.

The Money Pit

The e-cigarette arrived with barely a whimper and it took three years for the devices to reach Europe. Even then the take up was initially slow but soon began to snowball. The rest is history but what happened to Hon Lik? You would imagine that he would be a very rich man with an impressive trophy cabinet. He isn’t. Hon Lik lives comfortably but has largely flown under the radar, not that he seems to mind. He believes that his achievement will eventually receive the recognition that it deserves. He may be right, but whilst many reformed smokers would fall at his feet supplicating, the powers that be remain sceptical about e-cigs and so Hon isn’t going to get that Nobel prize any time soon.

What’s Eating Gilbert?

There is no doubt that reformed smokers owe Hon Lik a huge debt of gratitude. He managed to create a device which was both effective and affordable. But he didn’t actually invent the concept. That honour goes to Herbert A Gilbert who submitted a patent for his creation in 1963. Unfortunately, he couldn’t make it work!

Gilbert’s vision for a new device included many of the elements that we are familiar with today. A battery, a reservoir for juice and a heating element all featured. He did manage to whip up some prototypes but none ever made it to market. There were major issues with battery capacity which could not have been overcome before the invention of lithium ion models. Smoking was far more socially acceptable then and so Gilbert’s ideas did not create a bandwagon onto which anyone was motivated to jump.

Brave New World of E-Cigarettes

Advances in technology have meant that electronic cigarettes have now moved way beyond Hon Lik’s original device. But he got the ball rolling and he continues to work on new products as do many others. Vaping has come a long way but there are still exciting possibilities to explore. Who knows what the next great innovation will be? At Least more people might now survive to see it!