When Did Vaping Become So Popular?
With all of the attention vaping has attracted over the course of the last year, it may seem to some like the practice has blossomed virtually overnight. But in truth, the art of vaping has actually been many years in the making. Here, we’ll trace vaping back to its roots and follow its meteoric rise to popularity today…
Early False Starts
The first idea for a device to replace combustible cigarettes dates back nearly a century, to the filing of a patent by Joseph Robinson in 1927 for a device that would use electricity to heat tobacco instead of burning it. It’s not clear whether Robinson ever even built such a device, though it certainly didn’t make it to market and wouldn’t have fared well if it did, given the cumbersome battery technology of the day.
In 1963 another American, Herbert Gilbert, filed another patent for an electric cigarette that more closely resembles today’s devices. He did manage to build a working model, but it never went into production. Gilbert claimed at the time that manufacturers he approached preferred to wait for his patent to expire than pay to license it, though there is little evidence to this effect.
Yet another pair of Americans in the late seventies and early eighties worked on a device that would evaporate nicotine for inhalation – while the concept was similar their device was not, and it suffered from numerous malfunctions. Though it also failed to catch on, inventor Phil Ray was the first to coin the term “vape” as relates to the activity of inhaling smoke-free nicotine.
A Chinese Revolution
It would take until the early 2000s for the modern e-cigarette to finally take shape. Its inventor: Hon Lik, a Chinese pharmacist who, in 2003, began working on a device to replace smoking after his father contracted lung cancer due to a lifetime of consuming cigarettes.
Hon’s early device, an “e-cigar” so named for its size and shape, would be called the Ruyan (Chinese for “like smoking”) and would prove to be a hit on the domestic market. This would give rise to the cigalike, a smaller device designed to mock a cigarette in size and feel, down to a glowing light at the tip that would light up like a smoldering cigarette when the user took a puff. Hon and his early device were recently profiled in the Netflix documentary series Broken.
These early devices, like the nicotine inhalation system pondered years earlier by Ray, proved to be finicky and cumbersome to use, failing to deliver a satisfying hit and requiring constant maintenance. As the cigalikes began to make their way overseas in the late 2000s, however, millions of people across the globe became enamored with the idea of using an electronic device to quit smoking, and modern-day vaping was born.
An Age of Refinement
Early vapers began tweaking their devices and using other household products like flashlights and power tool batteries to create new, more powerful e-cigs that delivered a bigger, more consistent, and more satisfying hit. The colloquial name for these user-modified devices was “mods,” a term that would come to apply to any advanced vapor device, including those that would go on to be mass produced.
Early mods were “mechanical,” meaning they simply contained a battery and a switch that controlled whether or not the battery was supplying power to a user-built heating coil. If the wrong batteries were used or the coil was improperly built they could be quite dangerous, and a cursory knowledge of electrical theory was required to own and operate one safely.
This limited the scope of early vaping to serious enthusiasts, but further refinements included the addition of advanced circuitry to control the exact power output of a mod and safety protections to ensure mods wouldn’t function without properly functioning batteries. Early examples included the USA-made Billet Box and Provari, though China quickly caught on and began mass-producing affordable “regulated” mods that delivered a quality vape.
The First Boom
By the early 2010s, the cigalike was quickly being phased out, replaced by mods and “eGo-style” devices that would popularly come to be known as “vape pens,” a more reliable version of the simple product about the size of a small felt-tipped marker.
With mass market availability of quality products, the popularity of vaping soared. The estimated number of vapers worldwide jumped from just 7 million in 2011 to nearly 25 million in 2014. By that time, vaping had become so widespread that the Oxford English Dictionary named “vape” its word of the year.
Now a mainstream practice, vaping began to catch the eye of government regulators and health advocates. Public Health England, the UK’s national health body, conducted a widely-cited study concluding that vaping was 95 percent safer than smoking. Emboldened by these findings, even more smokers began to take to vaping, particularly in England, where the adult smoking rate dropped precipitously.
In the US, meanwhile, concern emerged that no long-term studies had been conducted on the risks of vaping due to its emergence as a relatively new phenomenon. Anti-smoking advocates quickly turned into anti-vaping advocates, arguing that vapor products, due to their flashy tech and the widespread availability of flavors more appealing than tobacco, were actually a greater risk of convincing teens to start smoking than they were a tool for adult smokers to wean themselves off of tobacco.
Return of the Cigalike
By 2016 the cigalike, long derided as unreliable and under-powered, was making a comeback. A new company, Juul, had launched a completely revamped version of the product – small as an actual cigarette, their device instead had a sleek design resembling a USB flash drive and a flashy marketing campaign promoting vaping as a hip, trendy hobby. More importantly, they’d made a breakthrough in the way e-cigs delivered nicotine to the user.
Traditionally extracted, or “freebase” nicotine, has a harsh taste and low level of uptake in the user’s body when inhaled in an aerosol vapor. But by tweaking the chemistry, Juul introduced the vaping world to “salt-based nicotine,” a new formula that was both smoother to inhale and hit the bloodstream just as quickly as the chemically-altered nicotine found in combustible cigarettes. This allowed their product to contain as much as 20 times as much nicotine as other e-cigs without irritating the lungs of the users.
As with other advances, this had benefits and drawbacks. Adults who’d tried quitting with traditional vapor devices but found the nicotine delivery unsatisfying or carrying a mod around cumbersome, for example, now had an option that more closely mimicked their old tobacco habit. But the high nicotine levels and unfortunate marketing campaign that the company pulled about six months after launching it also appealed to another crowd: non-smoking teens.
While underaged users had previously dabbled with e-cigs, their long-term use rates were low – most teens seemed to treat vaping as a fad and quickly abandoned the practice. But salt-based nicotine was strong enough to develop new addictions, even in users who’d never smoked. As Juul captured over 70% of the convenience store market for vapor products, the number of youth who reported vaping regularly skyrocketed in 2017 and again in 2018.
Industry in Limbo
Vaping has continued to gain popularity, despite a year-long rash of bad press in the US due to the youth-use crisis and an unrelated “mystery illness” tied to the illicit sale of oil cartridges containing THC. Smoking rates at home and abroad continue to reach all-time lows as more smokers switch to vaping and fewer youth ever begin using combustible tobacco products in the first place.
Despite the popular appeal, vaping in late 2019 finds itself under attack. The Trump Administration recently backed off a threat to ban all flavored vapor products, a move that would have effectively handed control of the industry over to the Big Tobacco firms early vape pioneers sought to take down. But bans are still being passed (and fought in court) in cities and states across the nation, and a May 2020 deadline for all vapor product suppliers to submit to a costly market approval process looms, threatening the future of vaping in the US.
These are indeed turbulent times in the vaping world. Stay tuned for updates on the situation, and consider joining a consumer advocacy group like CASAA if you’re an adult vaper who wants to make your voice heard.