A Brief History
On January 11, 1964, U.S. Surgeon General Luther L. Terry released a landmark report finally confirming what millions of people had suspected all along: that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, and a host of other deadly health problems. Although Dr. Terry’s report was hardly the first anti-smoking publication – King James I wrote about the negative effects of smoking as early as 1604 – it was the first publication that had a major impact around the world and a lasting effect on smoking reduction.
Once people are addicted to nicotine, though, quitting is not easy. Some have characterized nicotine as one of the world’s hardest drugs to quit, and its addictiveness has led to the creation of an entire industry devoted to the development and marketing of smoking cessation aids. Nicotine replacement products such as patches and gums do work – for some people, at least – but the fact that they don’t replace the rituals or physical sensations of smoking makes them less successful than they could be. That’s why e-cigarettes from companies like V2 Cigs UK have had such an impact on the smoking community; they’ve enabled millions of people around the world to discontinue tobacco use when those people would likely have been unsuccessful with traditional nicotine replacement therapies.
Did you know, though, that the modern e-cigarette is not the first attempt to create a product that could make quitting easier or at least reduce the harm from tobacco use? In this article, we’ll examine the two divergent paths that have led us to the two types of smoking alternatives that we have today: e-liquid vaping on one side and heat-not-burn tobacco products on the other.
The Original Smokeless Non-Tobacco Cigarette
The earliest known electronic cigarette was invented by American Herbert A. Gilbert in 1963 and eventually patented. Reading the patent, it’s startling how similar Gilbert’s invention was to the modern e-cigarette. The patent describes a battery-powered device into which a “flavor cartridge” is inserted. Gilbert really thought of everything when developing his smokeless cigarette.
- He realized that smokers wouldn’t want to exhale plain air; they needed a visual cue that resembled smoke, so Gilbert described his flavor cartridges as being filled with liquid that would turn to steam when heated.
- He designed his smokeless cigarette with a threaded mouthpiece to make cartridges easy to insert and remove.
- His design utilized a battery because the device would need to be portable.
- His design included an insulated outer case to protect the user’s hands from the heating element.
- His design used a liquid-impregnated sponge as a flavor cartridge, and that’s exactly how e-cigarette cartridges worked at the beginning of the modern vaping industry.
- He recognized that having a variety of flavors available would make it easier for smokers to quit, so he conceived of 10 flavors such as cinnamon, mint and rum.
Herbert A. Gilbert’s Smokeless Non-Tobacco cigarette did work. Gilbert constructed multiple battery-operated prototypes, but there are no known units surviving today. Gilbert lost his prototypes in a warehouse fire.
As impressive as Gilbert’s Smokeless Cigarette was, he was unable to find a company willing to put it into production. Gilbert spoke with representatives from companies in the tobacco, pharmaceutical and chemical industries, and he claimed that the companies he spoke to simply waited for his patent to expire so they could file their own versions.
Herbert A. Gilbert’s Smokeless Cigarette was an invention that arrived many years ahead of its time. Tobacco and pharmaceutical companies didn’t want to bring the product to the market because it could have cannibalized sales of those companies’ existing products. One of the reasons why Hon Lik was able to invent the modern e-cigarette – and turn that e-cigarette into a viable product – was because he had direct access to Chinese factories able to produce the product. Lacking that resource, Gilbert was not able to capitalize on his invention.
Herbert Gilbert is still alive today. Although he has received no financial reward for inventing the electronic cigarette, he is pleased by the fact that his invention may ultimately save millions of lives.
Early Attempts to Create a Heat-Not-Burn Cigarette
Tobacco companies, in a curious case of corporate doublespeak, have worked to develop heat-not-burn tobacco products since at least the 1960s. It takes serious guts to release a “safer” tobacco product without admitting that standard tobacco products are harmful to health, but the tobacco companies somehow managed to do exactly that. The first commercial heat-not-burn tobacco product was the Premier cigarette, which was released by R. J. Reynolds in 1988. Developing the Premier cigarette cost hundreds of millions of dollars. It flopped and was pulled from the market after a year.
The Premier cigarette used a carbon tip that functioned as a heat source. The user would light the carbon, and it would remain hot during the smoking session. Puffing on the cigarette would draw hot air through a tube of tobacco, allowing the user to get nicotine – and some tobacco flavor – without inhaling smoke. In a sense, the Premier cigarette was essentially a single-use tobacco vaporizer. People hated the flavor, but R. J. Reynolds continued working on the product and eventually re-released it as the Eclipse cigarette in 1994. While the Eclipse cigarette wasn’t a success, Reynolds didn’t give up on the idea; as of 2017, the company was pursuing regulatory approval to release an improved version of the cigarette.
While Reynolds has focused on the carbon element as a means of heating tobacco without burning it, their main competitor – Philip Morris – has instead concentrated on developing battery-powered tobacco heating devices. The company’s first such product was the Accord smoking system, released in 1998. The Accord was a battery-powered device into which the user inserted a sort of miniature cigarette. When the user puffed on the cigarette, an electronic heating element in the Accord would heat the tobacco without burning it.
The Accord was not successful, but Philip Morris continued developing the technology. The second-generation product – Heat Bar – was released in the mid-2000s. Finally, Philip Morris released its third-generation – and current – heat-not-burn product in 2014. The Philip Morris iQOS system is significantly smaller than the company’s previous tobacco vaping products. Philip Morris initially released the iQOS system in Japan. It was the perfect test market because nicotine e-liquid is illegal there. The iQOS system proved quite successful in Japan, and Philip Morris is slowly rolling the product out to the rest of the world.
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For more information, please see…
Hale, James and HowExpert Press. Vaping 101: History of Vaping. HowExpert, 2017.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of various electronic cigarettes, is a work of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, taken or made as part of an employee’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.