In the beginning, there was China
In 2003, a Chinese pharmacist named Hon Lik developed a device to allow smokers to have a “smoking” experience without actually inhaling combusted tobacco. Hon’s father had died from lung cancer and he himself was a smoker who wanted to quit. He patented his device and the company he worked for changed its name to Ruyan (meaning “like smoke”).
There had been previous stabs at developing a “smokeless cigarette” by other inventors and even by tobacco companies, but for various reasons no one got as far as actually making and selling a commercial product. After Hon Lik launched the Ruyan device, it was about three years before e-cigarettes made their way to Europe and the United States.
By 2007, there were several online sellers in the U.S., and a growing number of mall kiosks where passing smokers could buy starter kits with rechargeable batteries, and refill cartridges that screwed onto the batteries. For $150 or so, you might buy what would now cost less than $30.
The early products didn’t work very well, but for many smokers who wanted a way out they worked well enough. Others saw the potential, but were determined to find ways to improve the experience. The batteries didn’t last long enough, the hit wasn’t strong enough, the cartridges didn’t feed liquid to the coil well. Could these issues things be solved by…tinkering?
The early vapers found each other online. Among the earliest meeting places was E-Cigarette Forum (ECF), created by a young British vaper named Oliver Kershaw. The excited new “e-smokers” (one of many early names that didn’t survive) talked about what worked, what didn’t, and what they’d like to change. ECF wasn’t the only forum either. The vaping world was expanding.
Without the internet, it’s hard to see how the e-cigarette could have lasted. The products were not widely distributed, and the users were scattered. The online forums created a real community where every new member was celebrated and given advice and encouragement. Everyone had been a smoker. Everyone was excited to quit. Everyone knew it was hard to do. Everyone was aware that they were part of a kind of revolution.
Vapers had real input into the design of the products they used.
In 2008, the World Health Organization denounced e-cigarettes, and governments around the world followed suit. In 2009, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ordered shipments from China seized, claiming that e-cigs were an illegal “drug-device product.” Two American companies, including Sottera (which made NJoy e-cigarettes), sued the FDA, and in 2010 Judge Richard Leon granted an injunction preventing the FDA from regulating the products as medical devices. An appeals court upheld Leon’s decision, and the FDA decided to change its strategy and regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products.
By this time, new kinds of products were being developed, and the innovation took an unusual route. There were many Chinese manufacturers, but with few local vapers to get feedback from, they turned to American and European vapers for input. What users on forums like ECF or UK Vapers discussed was incorporated into the succeeding generations of Chinese products. And the generations progressed quickly, sometimes within months — or even weeks. Vapers had real input into the design of the products they used.
At the same time, some vapers in the west turned to making gear on their own. These pro-am “modders” created designs that were sometimes adopted by mass manufacturers in China, but were often sold directly to vapers looking for new things. Often known just by their forum nicknames, the early modders like Trog, Cisco, Zen, and Raidy invented products that are still being used, or introduced ideas that would spread widely and stick. Some of them are still at it.
Another crucial internet connection for the growing army of vapers around the world was YouTube. Early vapers shared their opinions on products while the crude webcams of the day allowed them to illustrate the good, bad and ugly. Some of the early vaping YouTubers are still around too. Scott Bonner (igetcha69), Nick “GrimmGreen” Green, and Phil Busardo (PBusardo) are all still making videos, and have hundreds of thousands of fans.
Along with forums and YouTube, a lot of the vaping conversation these days is happening on social media. Between Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, vapers around the world are finding new ways to connect, discuss gear, tips and techniques, and organize battles with regulators and legislators.
The domestic industry blooms: e-liquid and vape shops
After the FDA lost to NJoy in court, lots of vapers started to open their own businesses. After all, they had been helped by this unlikely miracle — why not share it with other smokers? Two things happened that spurred the rapid growth in vaping after 2010. First, a lot of online businesses began selling American-made e-liquid. They offered a dizzying variety of flavors and levels of quality. Some were basic single-flavor mixes, but others were complex and artfully made. However, vapers buying online had to take a chance they might like a flavor, since they couldn’t try it first.
The e-liquid boom led naturally to the explosion of vape shops. Before the growth in e-liquid and vape gear choices that happened after 2010, vapers bought almost exclusively online. But as the community got too big for the virtual world to contain, vapers started cashing in their retirement accounts, quitting their jobs, and opening shops that became real places for vapers to meet.
The legal struggle to keep vapor products available to American adults drags on.
Some vape shops created their own lines of e-liquid. Others sold the hundreds of new brands that were springing up across the country. With the ability to try flavors in a shop before committing to buy, vaping expanded even more quickly. But with the growth also came visibility and legal challenges. Cities and states wanted to tax vapor products, to eliminate “child flavors,” and to regulate where vapers could vape.
The current battle with the FDA will decide whether the entire independent vapor industry is able to survive, or whether the lives of millions of ex-smokers will be handed to the only businesses with the money to afford meeting the FDA’s requirements: the Big Tobacco companies. The regulations the FDA has imposed will bankrupt any company without millions to risk on a regulatory gamble.
Several challenges to the FDA’s deeming regulations are being considered in federal courts right now. Manufacturers and trade associations have come together to fight the rules that threaten their existence, and threaten vapers’ access to the products that have helped them quit smoking. The legal struggle to keep vapor products available to American adults drags on.