Puff goes the dragon


The electronic cigarette has been received with enthusiasm by anti-tobacco activists, write BARBARA DEMICKand NICOLE LIU

HON LIK used to light up first thing in the morning. He smoked between lectures at the university where he studied Oriental medicine, between bites at lunch, in the lab where he researched ginseng health products. He’d usually burn through two packs by dusk and smoke a third over dinner and drinks with colleagues.

It wasn’t until his father, also a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer that Hon finally kicked the habit.

Hon’s story could be that of any other nicotine-addicted, middle-aged man in China, where 60 per cent of the men smoke. What distinguishes the 52-year-old pharmacist and inventor is that he found inspiration in the addiction.

One of the strangest gizmos to come out of China in recent years, Hon’s invention, the electronic cigarette, turns the adage “where there’s smoke there’s fire” on its head.

It doesn’t burn at all. Instead, it uses a small lithium battery that atomises a liquid solution of nicotine. What you inhale looks like smoke, but it’s a vapour similar to the “stage fog” used in theatrical productions. It even has a teeny red light at the tip that lights up with each drag, just like the ember of a real cigarette.

“It’s a much cleaner, safer way to inhale nicotine,” says Hon, blowing curlicues of e-smoke as he shows off the cigarette in his Beijing office. (He says he doesn’t smoke at all anymore, and only “lights up” for such demonstrations.)

Hon’s first patent on the e-cigarette was awarded in 2003 and he introduced it to the Chinese market the next year. The company he worked for, Golden Dragon Holdings, was so inspired that it changed its name to Ruyan (meaning “like smoke” in Chinese) and started selling abroad.

This year, it’s planning a big push in the US. A disposable e-cigarette called the Jazz ($24.95 for the equivalent of five packs) is due to soon hit 7-Elevens in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Many rival versions, all made in China, are making their way to the US sold mostly over the internet by small marketing firms.

Unlike nicotine patches and gum, electronic cigarettes are designed to be fun. There are regulars and menthols, as well as chocolate and strawberry. For the ultimate tech experience, a company in Japan is selling one that is charged by the USB port of a computer.

The e-cigarettes aren’t marketed as a way to quit smoking, but as an alternative to smoking.

“It’s safe smoking – like smoking with a condom on,” says William Taskas, a Canadian distributor who is marketing a product called SmokeStik.

What makes the electronic cigarette more than just the latest curiosity from China is the enthusiasm it has inspired among respected anti-tobacco activists.

“This is exactly what the tobacco companies have been afraid of all these years, an alternative method of delivering nicotine that is actually enjoyable,” says David Sweanor, an adjunct law professor at the University of Ottawa who specialises in tobacco issues.

Even without smoke or fire, the electronic cigarette is sparking controversy. Australia, Canada and Hong Kong have banned electronic cigarettes on the grounds that they have not been sufficiently tested for safety.

“The way they were being sold, there was no control. A kid could buy it and take too many puffs. You could overdose on nicotine,” says Ronald Lam, tobacco control chief, the health department in Hong Kong, where 800 shops were raided last month and the entire e-stash confiscated.

The Food and Drug Administration last month confiscated shipments from three Chinese companies on the grounds they were making false health claims. The agency said in a recent letter to prospective importers of electronic cigarettes that it had not decided on their legality, but was “evaluating them on a case-by-case basis”.

Although they’re not exactly kicking Marlboro off the shelves in China, the electronic cigarettes have commanded a small but loyal following.

“They’re quite popular with both men and women,” says Sun Shujuan, a clerk at the tobacco counter of the Beijing City Department Store. Each day, she sells one or two of the reusable cigarettes (a $145 appliance), and a much larger number of the replacement cartridges, which run $9 for the equivalent of five packs of cigarettes.

Chinese smokers complain that the electronic cigarettes are so much more expensive than the real thing (most brands here are still less than $1 a pack) and that they can’t be easily shared. In China, cigarettes are the essential lubricant for opening a conversation – the smoke offered to the cop who has pulled you over, the pack held open by a salesman approaching a prospect.

“What is the point of having cigarettes if you can’t give one to a friend?” asks Liu Hai, who works as a driver and lives in Chengdu, in Sichuan province.

Although China is the birthplace of the electronic cigarette, the US is considered a far more promising market because of the higher price of cigarettes and the prohibition on smoking in many indoor spaces.

“When you’re in Minneapolis in the winter, it’s a lot more attractive to spend $24.95 on an electronic cigarette than it is to go out to smoke where it is 20 degrees below,” says Alex Chong, chief executive of Ruyan America, the US affiliate of Hon’s company. “We are finding that bars and restaurants are a great venue to introduce the products. It’s an impulse purchase.”

E-cigarettes are already being sold legally in some British pubs, where smoking is also banned.

Even though the electronic cigarettes are not yet widely available in the US, the battle lines are being drawn.

“Just in the last few weeks, I’ve gotten a flurry of calls about the electronic cigarette. It presents some novel issues from a regulatory standpoint,” says Kathleen Dachille, director of the Legal Resources Center for Tobacco Regulation, Litigation and Advocacy at the University of Maryland.

The electronic cigarette marketers refrain from calling e-cigarettes a smoking-cessation aid – in part because under US law, if they made any health claims, they would be subject to FDA approval.

Bill Godshall, head of Smokefree Pennsylvania, estimates that at least 100,000 electronic cigarettes already have been sold in the US. (The gizmo received a surprising boost last month when Leonardo DiCaprio was photographed riding a bicycle while smoking one.)

“You have these abstinence-only extremists who want to eradicate all nicotine products. But as you’ve seen, whether we’re talking about sex or alcohol or nicotine, abstinence doesn’t really work,” says Godshall, who has collected 4,000 signatures on a petition to allow e-cigarettes to be legally sold in the US.– ( Los Angeles Times/Washington Post)