The story of the invention of vape hardware is one that needs to be told in two parts.
The first part begins in the early 1960s, as innovators devised incredibly forward-thinking technologies to replace cigarettes which were promptly shut down by a tobacco industry working in concert to try and deny reality.
These included early e-cigarette patents as well as the Favor smokeless cigarette, which was snuffed out by the FDA before it had a chance to even attempt to make the positive impact it might have had a chance to.
The second part begins at the dawn of the third millennium, with a lifelong smoker in a country with a heavy smoking culture developing smoking’s “digital camera” to try and finally kick the habit for good.
His name is Dr Hon Lik, and his story is equal parts triumphant and tragic, linked closely to the evolution and rise of the modern vape industry.
The Centre Of The Tobacco World
China is the largest producer and largest consumer of tobacco in the world, with a third of the world’s smokers living in China and a third of the cigarettes smoked in the world lit up in the country.
With half of all adult men in China smoking, cigarettes are a huge part of social etiquette, to the point that giving a cigarette is a sign of respect and refusing to take it can be a sign of disrespect.
Whilst this trend was true in the United States and the United Kingdom until strongly enforced smoking bans, this means that it is still very easy to be pressured into starting smoking in China and very difficult to quit.
This was the culture that Hon Lik was born into in 1956 to a state planner father who was a lifelong smoker and who would ultimately pass away from lung cancer. It was no surprise, therefore, that he also became a smoker at the age of 18, smoking as many as 60 a day when under stress.
The connection between smoking and lung cancer is exceptionally well-documented, and even at an early age studying Pharmacology at the Liaoning University of Traditional Chinese Medicine and later working as a researcher at its connected botanical medicine research facility, Dr Lik was aware of this.
However, as far too many people who have lost a parent to tobacco-related health conditions can attest to, knowing that cigarettes are a death sentence and seeing their effects first-hand elicit two very different responses.
Devastated, Dr Lik tried especially hard to quit, but found the stop-smoking aids at the time were not enough to help him.
He relied heavily on nicotine patches at first, but would find at times that they did not work, and at other times he would forget to remove them and have exceptionally restless nights as a consequence.
It was during this long and troubled night of the soul that he had his epiphanic moment; the reason why gum and patches do not work is that they do not replicate the way people actually take nicotine.
Whilst patches which deliver a steady stream of nicotine can help the cravings of some people, and gum can help provide a distraction and an oral fixation, neither replicated the “hit” of a cigarette drag, and that moment of intensity is almost as addicting as the nicotine is.
He reasoned that the only way to stop himself and others from smoking was by providing an alternative that could directly replace a cigarette.
Later, he would describe the switch as akin to how analogue cameras were replaced by digital ones; as long as the quality, feeling and functionality are the same, people will eventually make the switch and reap the considerable benefits.
He is not the only one with this idea. Not counting other versions of the vaporiser concept, the notion of taking in nicotine as and when you need it has been attempted by many other products, most famously Favor smoke-free cigarettes.
Whilst the Favor marketing team coined the term “vaping”, the product worked very differently; there was no vaporising element, but instead, a filter drenched in nicotine that would when inhaled be pulled into the body, providing the same feeling without any smoke.
Herbert A Gilbert, the man behind the original e-cigarette patent in the 1960s, came to the same conclusion as both Dr Lik and the team behind Favor; the reasons why tobacco is unhealthy is not necessarily nicotine but the chemicals and tar that were burned and taken into the lungs.
Nicotine’s main harmful element is its extremely addictive qualities, which causes severe withdrawal symptoms if a person tries to simply cut themself off from it, and nicotine replacement therapy is built on the idea not to get rid of it cold turkey but avoid smoking.
Mr Gilbert’s plan sadly never got off the ground and Favor found themselves mired in regulatory issues that ultimately stopped the fledgling company from getting off of the ground.
Dr Lik, however, had the benefit of timing, better technology and one of the strongest motivations a person can have.
When working for the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, his primary project was to take herbal remedies and make them easier to consume, typically by turning them into tablet form, but after his father’s death, he started work on what would become the Ruyan (Chinese for “like smoke).
The initial research began in the year 2000 but it would take a few years for Dr Lik to find a breakthrough. Creating a liquid with nicotine was easy, but developing an aerosol with it that felt like smoke was the more complex part of the equation.
His solution was to use an ultrasound system that helped create a smoke-like vapour, although most modern vapes replaced this with a heating coil element.
Whilst he is credited with the invention of the vape, he did not make too much money from it, only receiving a fraction of the money made when he and his investment partner sold their company Dragonite to Imperial Tobacco in 2013.
He also spent a lot of time as a duel-user, smoking and vaping, although he always argued that the reason he continued to smoke was to sample cigarettes to ensure that vapes also provide the right text and smoke texture.