The modern electronic cigarette, or personal vapouriser as it is more commonly known, is just about 17 years old. When the first e-cigarette hit the market in 2003, it was advertised as a safer alternative to tobacco. In the years since it has grown to be so much more than that. Modern vapers see the practice as a lifestyle more than anything else. How did we get to this point? How did a device intended to provide an alternative to smoking tobacco become the symbol of a new approach to living? It is a long and complicated story rooted in technology, cultural criticism, and government regulation.
A Short History of the Technology
The first patented e-cigarette device dates to 1963 and an inventor named Herbert Gilbert. His device was considerably different compared to the modern e-cigarette, but it accomplished the same thing: it allowed people to enjoy what they most loved about tobacco while reducing the dangerous chemicals they normally inhaled through cigarette smoke. Gilbert was never able to find an investor willing to get on board with his device. Back then, smoking was still extremely popular. Cigarette companies just couldn’t see the value in an electric device that eliminated tobacco smoke.
Scientist and nicotine researcher Jed Rose invented a device that aerosolized the constituents of tobacco smoke in the 1980s. Like Gilbert before him, Rose never found a platform for his device. But he did succeed in coming up with the nicotine patch. That takes us to 2003 and a Chinese scientist by the name of Hon Lik. He invented the modern e-cigarette specifically as a tobacco replacement. Lik was a smoker bound and determined not to die of lung cancer as his father did. His e-cigarette device was an instant hit. The rest, as they say, is history.
Widespread Market Acceptance
Hon Lik’s e-cigarette device wasn’t a big hit in his own country. Chinese smokers preferred their tobacco. They still do. Apparently, the vaping experience just isn’t for them. At any rate, once Lik’s e-cig arrived in Europe, that was it. By 2007 the company he worked for was selling e-cigarette devices hand over fist. Almost instantly, Western cultures responded with a knee-jerk disdain. E-cigarettes looked too much like the real thing. People had trouble believing that they were emitting tobacco smoke. Anti-smoking activists went on the offensive, claiming that vaping was too much like the real thing to be less harmful. Cultural criticism sowed the seeds for where we are today. Smokers, willing to give vaping a try as an alternative to tobacco use, started converting rather quickly. Some of the willingness to ditch tobacco in exchange for vaping may have been the direct result of the culture telling them not to. Smokers had already endured years of vilification; they were not about to let the culture tell them not to vape.
The next big step in vaping came in the early 2000s when user-made mods (modified e-cigarette products) started appearing for sale online. Mods actually improved on existing technology in a number of ways. Messy cartridges that tended to leak e-liquid were replaced by more reliable cartomisers that combined cartridge and atomizer in a single piece. Atomizers were modified to accept larger batteries. Liquid tanks were introduced to increase capacity. And through it all, vapers gradually became connoisseurs of their vaping products no different than wine and chocolate connoisseurs. Technology also paved the way for vaping lounges, places where vapers could get together to try out new e-liquid flavours and the latest mods. Like the coffee houses before them, vaping lounges became a place of social interaction and community acceptance. They largely solidified the idea of vaping as a lifestyle.
Then Came Government Regulation
The icing on the proverbial cake was when governments began actively regulating e-cigarettes as if they were tobacco products. Long-time vapers viewed this as a personal assault on their freedoms. And like any group that feels threatened, vapers banded together to fight what they thought were onerous regulations. Vaping groups began popping up in North America, Europe, Australia, Asia, and elsewhere. The more vocal the vapers became, the tighter their bond of brotherhood grew. Their dedication to the vaping lifestyle put vapers in the same league as cigar smokers and wine lovers.
Vaping began as a legitimate exercise in making nicotine use safer. It has achieved that much. Numerous studies over the years have shown that vaping is magnitudes safer than smoking. If promoting vaping as a smoking alternative has contributed to falling smoking rates, the e-cigarette’s original goal has been achieved. In the meantime, it has also created an entirely new lifestyle centred around e-liquids, device technology, modding, and yes, sticking it to the man. It is not likely that vaping will ever go away now that it is so entrenched.