If you’re a vaper, you owe a huge debt to Hon Lik. The Chinese pharmacist didn’t invent the concept of an electronic cigarette – that honour goes to Herbert A Gilbert, who submitted a patent application in 1963 – but Mr Hon was the first one to turn the vision into a real device that actually worked.
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Time and effort made it possible
Gilbert’s design included all the elements we’re familiar with today – a battery, a reservoir for flavoured liquid and a heating element. He made a few prototypes but it never reached the market. There were a couple of reasons for that; smoking was still much more widespread and socially acceptable, while the technology for a really successful product wasn’t there yet. Battery capacity was the biggest problem – e-cigarettes wouldn’t be the same without modern, high-capacity lithium ion batteries.
Hon Lik doesn’t seem to have been influenced by Gilbert’s design, which isn’t surprising; until vaping started to become mainstream a few years ago almost nobody had ever heard of it. He came up with his own idea independently, motivated by his father’s death from lung cancer and his own struggle to quit smoking with nicotine patches. Initially he tried using ultrasound technology to create the vapour, but the droplets were too large and didn’t have the same feel as cigarette smoke, Then he hit on the idea of a resistance heater, which gave much better results.
So Hon wasn’t the first person to come up with the idea of an electronic cigarette, but he was the one who put in the time and effort to create something we could actually use. In 2003 he registered a patent for the familiar modern design, and the first devices hit the Chinese market the next year. By 2006 they were becoming available outside China, and we all know what it’s grown to from there.
Hon himself hasn’t made a lot of money from his invention, as many early manufacturers ignored or worked around his patent and the technology has now moved far beyond his original design. He’s still actively involved in the industry, though. Hon now works for Fontem Ventures, a subsidiary of Imperial Tobacco and the current owner of Blu eCigs, where he continues to work on perfecting vapour products.
Ecigs patents sold to Imperial Tobacco
Until the last year or so Hon Lik has been a widely admired figure among vapers; after all he’s the one who made it all possible. More recently, though, he’s started to become more of a controversial figure. The first hints of controversy came when he sold all his patents to Imperial Tobacco in early 2014. Shortly after that, Fontem Ventures began suing companies for allegedly violating the patents it now held. Targets of these lawsuits included NJOY, Spark Industries, LOEC (who owned Blu at the time) and VMR Products, the manufacturer of V2 e-cigs.
From Hon’s point of view this is perhaps an understandable move. He had seen dozens of companies in China and the USA turning out products he believed were covered by his patents, without paying him for the privilege. He successfully sued some of them but finally grew tired of it and sold the patents to Imperial for a rumoured $75 million. However the move has caused a lot of resentment. Manufacturers – and many vapers – feel that Fontem is trying to wipe out competitors based on patents for yesterday’s technology. For example all modern cigalikes use cartomisers, which were invented by two British entrepreneurs – Hon Lik’s patents don’t cover them. The legal campaign has, in general, not been good for the reputations of either Hon or Fontem.
Interviews Hon gave to Motherboard magazine and to Blu have also raised questions about how well he understands the current industry and what vapers actually want. After the Motherboard interview many vapers expressed disappointment with Hon’s views on current issues. Some of his comments can probably be put down to cultural differences. When asked what he thought of the range of flavours on offer, Hon replied:
Obviously that’s very far from the truth – in Europe and the USA most vapers start out with tobacco flavours, but quickly move away from them. Indeed, most credit the variety of flavours as a key factor in breaking the link with smoking. Hon clearly wasn’t aware of this; when the interviewer pointed it out to him he speculated that perhaps it was because Americans consume more sugar than the Chinese. This seems an unlikely explanation – it’s more probable that Hon, who’s still heavily focused on the cigalike sector, just doesn’t fully understand the appeal of open system products.
Cigalikes versus open systems
There are other hints of this in the interview he gave to Blu. When asked what he thought about the modding community, and mods in general, he replied that he thought most people wanted something simple. While this isn’t completely clear, the evidence suggests that vapers tend to start with cigalikes but many quickly move on to eGo-style devices or mods. More importantly, according to Action on Smoking and Health those who were using refillable tanks a year after they started vaping were almost three times as likely to have quit smoking. Simple devices are certainly popular, but they don’t seem to be very effective as a smoking substitute.
Some people aren’t too happy about Hon’s generally supportive views on the tobacco industry entering the market. He sees the fact that tobacco companies are actively promoting vaping as a good thing, and a sign of social responsibility on their part. They also, as he rightly points out, have the marketing and retail channels to bring vaping to a wider audience – and the research budgets to advance the technology. While some vapers are hostile to the tobacco industry many share Hon’s view, so he’s really quite close to the mainstream here.
Happy with the new FDA Regs
What’s really caused a storm, though, is Hon’s view of the forthcoming FDA Deeming Regulations. Motherboard asked him about the upcoming laws – which, vapers fear, will devastate the US market – and his reply ruffled quite a lot of feathers:
Many vapers are outraged that Hon, who did so much to create modern e-cigarettes, should support a law that will ban most of them. Some believe he just doesn’t understand the scale of damage the Deeming Regs will inflict; others are less charitable, and point to his role with Fontem as a possible factor.
There’s no doubt that, if any vape companies benefit from the FDA’s crackdown, it will be the big cigalike manufacturers like Blu. The FDA have openly stated that product applications for closed system devices are far more likely to be approved than for the open systems produced by smaller companies. Then there’s the cost. The $1-2 million price tag of a marketing authorisation application is peanuts for a company like Blu, especially when they sell a handful of different products in huge volumes. On the other hand it’s an impossible barrier if you’re a small business with a diverse product range – like most of the industry.
DIY mixing and modding “not recommended”
Hon himself admits that Blu is “very well positioned in this new regulatory environment.” He’s also quite open about favouring cigalikes over open systems, and he disapproves of DIY mixing and modding:
Realistically, of course, Hon is going to support the company that employs him. Fontem and their cohorts in the cigalike sector believe they can make deeming work for them, and they’re probably right. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a high-profile employee speaks in favour of a law that will benefit his employer. So is it fair to say, as some have, that Hon has betrayed vapers by his stance?
That’s a difficult question. No, he hasn’t sided with the fanatics in tobacco control who would like to see e-cigarettes disappear and all of us go back to the lit tobacco they feel comfortable bothering us about. In fact in both his recent interviews he has opposed laws that discourage smokers from switching. Hon is a strong supporter of our right to vape. What’s more questionable is his commitment to letting us decide what to vape – and on this point he certainly doesn’t side with those who favour open systems and the current wide choice of products.
History should look kindly on Hon. His work turned a theoretical concept into a real product that has already benefitted millions of people and has the potential to save a billion lives by the end of this century. For that, all vapers owe him our gratitude. But vaping has grown explosively over the past decade, largely due to the work of enthusiasts in Europe and the USA. It’s much bigger than one man now. So while we should sincerely thank Hon Lik for laying the foundations, perhaps we shouldn’t look to him as a guide in the future.