Almost as long as there have been cigarette smokers, there have been smokers who wanted to quit. Even before the release of the landmark 1964 Surgeon General’s Report that linked smoking with a host of chronic diseases, most long-term smokers were already aware that what they were doing wasn’t good for their health. For decades, tobacco companies, pharmacists and independent inventors worked to devise solutions that would help people quit smoking successfully. It wasn’t until the release of the modern electronic cigarette from companies like V2 Cigs UK, though, that millions of people around the world finally had a solution that was sufficiently convenient, affordable and satisfying – and no piece of technology had a greater hand in that than the tiny and energy-dense lithium-ion battery.
In this article, we’re going to describe the role that the lithium-ion battery played in the modern smoking cessation and tobacco harm reduction movement. Before we do that, though, we’ll discuss some early attempts to create reduced-harm smoking products and explain why those products failed to catch on. Sometimes, a great idea can’t have its day in the sun until technology begins to catch up to inventors’ visions. This is definitely one of those cases.
1963: The First Smokeless Cigarette Fails to Find a Manufacturer
People generally agree that Herbert A. Gilbert was the first inventor who attempted to create what we would recognize today as an electronic cigarette. Gilbert’s Smokeless Cigarette – invented in 1963 – was a small battery-powered device that heated flavored water vapor for inhaling. Some of the flavors that Gilbert created included rum, mint, and cinnamon. Gilbert’s Smokeless Cigarette did not use nicotine, but Gilbert believed that the device – which allowed people to inhale and exhale a water vapor that looked and felt like smoke – would help people quit smoking anyway. Gilbert also imagined that the device could potentially be used to deliver medications and to help curb overeating.
Gilbert says that his invention worked and was ready for production. Since it ran on battery power, it was even somewhat portable. Gilbert failed, however, to find a manufacturer for his device. He pitched the Smokeless Cigarette to companies in the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries, but those companies were reportedly unwilling to produce something that could potentially erode their existing markets.
The 1980s: The Favor Smokeless Cigarette Gets Shut Down as a Drug Delivery Device
During the early 1980s, a company called Advanced Tobacco Products formed to manufacture and market a new type of harm reduction device called the Favor Smokeless Cigarette. Favor sold in packs of six, and it delivered nicotine to the user without heating a liquid or generating visible vapor. Instead, the Favor Smokeless Cigarette was simply a tube filled with a nicotine-soaked plug. Inhaling caused the nicotine in the plug to vaporize and enter the lungs. The fact that Favor didn’t meet the legal definition of a cigarette meant that Advanced Tobacco Products could market it in ways – such as with television advertising – that wouldn’t be legal for traditional tobacco products. In fact, the term “vaping” was supposedly first used in conjunction with the Favor Smokeless Cigarette.
Why the Favor brand failed to catch on is a topic that has inspired much speculation. Some believe that the brand’s success was stifled by meddling tobacco companies and government officials who were afraid of the revenue loss that Favor might cause. Another person connected with the brand has said that the nicotine in the Favor Smokeless Cigarette tended to degrade in storage, causing the vapor to taste bitter after the product sat around for a while. Ultimately, the brand was shut down because the U.S. government determined that it was a new drug delivery device being sold without authorization.
1997: Philip Morris Accord Is Too Bulky for Mainstream Success
In 1997, Philip Morris released a new low-tar and low-smoke device called Accord. Accord was the forerunner of PM’s current IQOS system. It used an electric element to heat a plug of tobacco to the point at which the nicotine in the tobacco vaporized. That’s much the same as how IQOS works, but IQOS differs from Accord in a few key areas. Most notably, battery miniaturization has allowed Philip Morris to give IQOS a new heating device that’s much closer in size and shape to a traditional cigarette than the pager-sized holder for the Accord smoking system. The large Accord device made people feel a bit silly in social situations. Accord never fully caught on for that reason.
With its much smaller holder, IQOS has become much more successful for Philip Morris than Accord ever was. By the time IQOS was released, though, e-cigarettes and vaping had taken hold around the world. Although IQOS does have millions of users, most of those people live in nations in which nicotine e-liquid is illegal.
The late 2000s: The Modern E-Cigarette Is Just Right
The modern e-cigarette that we know today was originally invented by Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik and patented around the world in 2003. Although Lik’s e-cigarette wasn’t particularly successful in China at first, it took off rapidly in the United States and Europe. By the early 2010s, millions of people across Europe and North America had stopped smoking with the assistance of e-cigarettes and had switched fully to nicotine vapor.
Lik’s original e-cigarette used ultrasonic vibrations to atomize e-liquid and was not as effective as the vaping devices of today – but it worked. More importantly, it was developed in China – a nation in which intellectual property laws were poorly enforced at the time. Factories across Shenzhen quickly scrambled to make copycat e-cigarettes, and some of those devices were even smaller and more effective than Lik’s first-generation devices.
The most important breakthrough that came out of the development of those copycat e-cigarettes was the fact that lithium-ion batteries had finally become so small and energy-dense that it became possible to design an e-cigarette that looked virtually the same as a tobacco cigarette. Once that breakthrough was achieved, it was finally possible for smokers to use harm reduction products without looking silly in social situations.
In addition, the fact that e-cigarettes looked like tobacco cigarettes made it obvious that they related somehow to smoking. Smokers saw the devices in gas stations and convenience stores and wanted to know what they were. If it weren’t for the advancement and miniaturization of lithium-ion battery technology, it is unlikely that e-cigarettes would ever have become the successful mainstream products that they are today.