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Why Did Vaping Take So Long To Take Off? | DIY eLiquids

The modern history of vape hardware begins in 2003, which was the moment nicotine had its “digital camera moment” and it became clear that there was a safer alternative to smoking.

Most people know the story of Dr Hon Lik, his attempt to invent a device to avoid the same fate as his father and the ultimate development of the Ruyan electronic cigar, the genesis for an entire galaxy of different vape devices and subcultures.

However, the technology behind the vape as we would come to know it was patented as early as the 1960s and certain related technologies were invented long before this too. Why did it take so long for vaping to truly take off and become approved as a smoking cessation aid?

The history of vaping is filled with false dawns and strange complex circumstances, but the most confusing situation of all is why it took four decades for a technology people knew would help to save and prolong lives to finally make it into the hands of people.


A Brief History Of Smoking’s Ills

The first patent for an electronic vaporiser was filed in 1927 by Joseph Robinson, but even though the dangers of smoking were suspected at this point, the intention of this patent was not to create an electronic cigarette as we know the concept today.

Instead, Mr Robinson’s invention was meant to be a medical device that superheated medical compounds that were inhaled, such as those used to treat asthma or other forms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Ultimately the device was never marketed, but it is telling that at no point from 1927 up until 1963 was there any suggestion that such a device could be used as an alternative to tobacco products such as cigarettes, cigars and pipe tobacco that were ubiquitous at this point.

Tobacco has been used as early as 12,300 years ago according to a 2021 archaeological study, 9000 years earlier than anyone had previously believed, but it would take until the 16th Century and the colonisation of the Americas for tobacco to make it to Europe and quickly become ubiquitous.

As early as 1604 there was significant pushback, with King James I of England (King James VI Scotland) describing tobacco as a custom that was awful to look at, to smell, bad for the brain and could cause harm to the lungs. This was the justification for the first tax on tobacco imports.

The modern history of tobacco and the blight it has become on health and society begins in 1881, with the development of the first cigarette rolling machine, creating the cigarette industry and one of the biggest colossal health crises in modern history in the process.

Whilst there were small-scale bans and backlashes against its use, tobacco became increasingly ubiquitous and the initial concerns about the morality of smoking turned into concerns about health risks.

Whilst others had voiced concerns before him, Dr Isaac Adler was the first doctor to go on the record and suggest a link between smoking and lung cancer as well as vascular diseases.

He would be far from the only one over the next four decades, but it would take a number of widely publicised health warnings for a lot of the concerns to finally be heeded and start to translate into legal and social change.

It would be an exceptionally long process, not helped by the actions of large tobacco companies that were later challenged in court.


Four Decades Ahead

In 1963, Herbert A Gilbert filed a patent for a device that at its core would only be created four decades later, but in practice, it might have only been a year too early to have changed the world as we know it.

The year after this patent, the first report by the US Surgeon General on smoking and health was published that concluded that smoking caused lung cancer and chronic bronchitis, becoming a significant wake-up call that despite other claims, smoking was incredibly bad for your health.

Mr Gilbert had developed a gadget that he nicknamed the “Smokeless”, which worked much like a standard e-cigarette in that it heated a liquid to create a vapour that could be inhaled in place of smoking tobacco.

He believed, ultimately correctly, that it could transform people’s lives and even believed it could be used to help people who were dieting “smoke” unhealthy but delicious foods instead, although exactly how much that could have helped has less research backing than the first selling point.

The problem was twofold; the first was that whilst the dangers of smoking were a matter of public record by 1965, it was also very popular and fashionable, making an electronic alternative a difficult sell.

The other, bigger issue was that the tobacco industry had an exceptionally strong lobby, and famously managed to win all but two out of 800 private court cases between them and individuals harmed by cigarettes. Even the two leftover cases were overturned on appeal.

This lobby vehemently disagreed about the harm smoking caused, attempting to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt and denying the evidence of their eyes, ears and lungs.

This was their most essential command, done as part of Operation Berkshire to try and avoid admitting a liability that would likely destroy the industry and one that held out until 1998 and its revelation as part of the Master Settlement Agreement that Big Tobacco had lied under oath about the addictive qualities of nicotine.

This fundamental behaviour made creating an alternative tricky, with only one attempt until the Ruyan in 2003 making it beyond the prototype stage.

Favor was not an e-cigarette, but fulfilled a similar purpose of providing a nicotine-filled vapour thanks to a filter paper soaked with nicotine.

It initially sold well in California and a few southwestern regions in the United States, but were caught out by a change in FDA rules and ultimately ceased distribution.

In the end, e-cigarettes would start being sold in 2003 and slowly increase in popularity as increasingly restrictive smoking laws banned smoking indoors, increased the cost of cigarettes and enforced plain packaging with large warnings.