A brief history of e-cigarettes

All the rage.
All the rage.
Image: zz/KGC-107/STAR MAX/IPx 2019
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It might feel like vaping has come out of nowhere, but tobacco and technology companies have been workshopping alternatives to combustible cigarettes for decades now—and largely flopping. Perhaps back in the 2000s, you encountered what appeared to be a cigarette, only to discover the “lit” end was a battery-operated light. Or a few years ago, you might have mistaken a friend’s Pax or Juul for a high-tech lighter or slim USB drive. (Were we ever so young?)

But within the last decade or so, as cigarette sales flag, e-cigarettes have come into their own. According to Euromonitor, between 2015 and 2018 sales of e-vapor products and heated tobacco products (HTPs) increased a whopping 228%, from an estimated $8.4 billion to $27.6 billion. Herewith, a short history of how we got here:   

  • 5000-3000 BCTobacco—aka Nicotiana tabacum and Nicotiana rustica—is first cultivated in the Americas. “The most striking features of early tobacco use are the variety of reasons employed to justify its consumption, and the diversity of ways in which it was taken,” writes Iain Gately in Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization. There was no Candy Crush vape juice in the pre-Columbian era, but the desire to diversify nicotine consumption was there. Tobacco was sniffed, chewed, eaten, drunk, smeared over bodies, used in eye drops and enemas, and smoked … and not least it served as a simple narcotic for daily use by men and women.”
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  • 1963: Americans smoke a record (at the time) 523 billion cigarettes. In Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, Herbert A. Gilbert invents a battery-powered “smokeless non-tobacco cigarette” which heats liquid, allowing users to “smoke their favorite food.” Among the flavors: mint, rum, and cinnamon. (No pizza?)
  • 1964US surgeon general Luther L. Terry issues the first Smoking and Health Report, which concludes that smoking is a cause of lung cancer and laryngeal cancer in men, a probable cause of lung cancer in women, and the most important cause of chronic bronchitis.
  • 1979: Norman Jacobson, a doctor researching safer alternatives to cigarettes, coins the term “vaping” in reference to his “non-combustible cigarettes (NCCs).” In a presentation to colleagues, he says: “We will hereafter refer to nicotine vapor inhalation as vaping and people who inhale nicotine vapor as vapers.”
  • 1988: R.J. Reynolds tests the Premier—a “smokeless” cigarette that employs what the New York Times describes as an aluminum “flavor capsule” and burns a “a small piece of charcoal-like carbon”—in Arizona and Missouri. It is “highly unpopular,” writes the Times. “The smokers complained, among other things, that the cigarette has an unpleasant smell, that it lacks flavor, that it does not burn down like a normal cigarette and that it is too hot to hold.”
Premier: The smokeless cigarette. January 25, 1989.
Premier: The smokeless cigarette. January 25, 1989.
Image: Photo by Greg White/Fairfax Media via Getty Images
  • 2003Chinese pharmacist and inventor Hon Lik, considered by many to be the father of the modern e-cigarette, files a US patent for “a non-smokable electronic spray cigarette which contains only nicotine without tar.” (Hon’s patents are now owned by a subsidiary of Imperial Tobacco.)
  • 2005: Adam Bowen and James Monsees—today best known as the cofounders of Juul Labs, then graduate students at Stanford University—present their product design thesis project, an electronic cigarette “at least temporarily” called Ploom. Its tagline: “the rational future of smoking.”
  • 2007: Monsees and Bowen establish Pax Labs, a startup where they develop vaporizers for cannabis (Pax) and nicotine, which they will later spin into separate companies.
  • 2008: The World Health Organization (WHO) says that despite marketers’ claims, it “does not consider [the electronic cigarette] to be a legitimate therapy for smokers trying to quit,” and declares a need for clinical studies and testing.
  • 2009: The Tobacco Control Act gives the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the role of regulating tobacco, but electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) are not included. 
  • 2015: The Juul, Pax Labs’ vaporizer for nicotine-laced e-juice, is unveiled and promoted with a campaign excoriated for its unabashed youth appeal.
An illustration shows a man exhaling smoke from an electronic cigarette in Washington, DC on October 2, 2018.
The Juul has arrived.
Image: EVA HAMBACH/AFP/Getty Images
  • 2016: The Tobacco Control Act is expanded to include electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS).
  • 2016: Philip Morris International launches the IQOS, an electric “heat-not-burn” device that uses tobacco in place of e-juice, in the UK. CEO Andre Calantzopoulos tells the BBC that the company is working to “phase out” conventional cigarettes. The BBC calls the IQOS “a £45 battery pack that looks like a small, dumpy mobile phone.”
  • 2018: The FDA declares youth vaping an “epidemic.”
  • 2018: Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA, announces it will acquire a 35% stake in Juul for $12.8 billion. “We understand the controversy and skepticism that comes with an affiliation and partnership with the largest tobacco company in the US,” writes Juul CEO Kevin Burns in a press release. “We were convinced by actions, not words, that in fact this partnership could help accelerate our success switching adult smokers.”
  • 2019The backlash begins? Model and Instagram influencer Bella Hadid resolves publicly (on Instagram, natch) to give up Juuling for the new year.
  • 2019: US government agencies turn up the heat: A congressional subcommittee calls Juul executives to testify about the company’s attempts to reach kids through school and summer camp programs; the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigates whether Juul used social-media influencers and other marketing tactics to appeal to minors; and the FDA launches an investigation after multiple reports of seizures mention the use of a Juul. 
  • 2019: Reports of vaping-related illnesses proliferate rapidly. As of early September, 450 cases of vaping-related respiratory illnesses are reported across 33 US states, and there are at least five vaping-related fatalities. State and federal officials attribute some but not all of those to an oil derived from vitamin E that was used in vaped cannabis products. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that people not use e-cigarette products while the investigation is ongoing.
  • 2019: IQOS launches a US pilot program in Atlanta, GA where it will sell at an IQOS store in an upscale mall, as well as about 500 storefronts, including Circle K, QuikTrip, RaceTrac, and Speedway.
  • 2020: The deadline for US ENDS sellers to submit applications called “premarket tobacco applications,” or PMTAs, demonstrating a public health standard evaluating risks and benefits to smokers and non-smokers alike. (This deadline, a moving target, was previously set for 2018 and 2022.)