‘Quitting is suffering’: Hon Lik, inventor of the e-cigarette, on why he did it

His life-saving invention has always been designed to drive out cigarettes. Why can’t public health panjandrums see that?

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

Few people have heard of Hon Lik, which is a pity because he’s probably saved more lives already than anybody else I have met. Twelve years ago, he invented vaping — the idea of getting nicotine vapour from an electronic device rather than a miniature bonfire between your lips. Vaping is driving smoking out at an extraordinary rate, promising to achieve what decades of public health measures have largely failed to do. And it is doing so without official encouragement, indeed with some official resistance.

Via an interpreter, and sucking on an electronic pipe, Mr Hon told me how it happened. And here is the key point, the one that panjandrums of public health still seem to miss. He invented vaping in order to stop smoking, and that’s what it’s used for today.

He says he was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day while working as a chemist at the Liaoning Provincial Institute of Traditional Chinese Medicine. He thought: ‘How can I quit?’ He tried cold turkey several times and failed. In 2001 he tried a nicotine patch but it gave him nightmares when he forgot to take it off at night, and it failed to replicate the initial rush of a cigarette.

Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 09.18.03

Being a chemist with a penchant for electronics, he went into the laboratory and set about emulating the effect of smoke without a fire. The lab where he worked had a good supply of pure nicotine, used for calibrating other products. He needed to find a way to vaporise it instantly, and began with ultrasound, later turning to a heating element.

His first machine was a monster. By 2003 he had filed a patent on a smaller, more practical model. ‘I already knew it would be a revolutionary product,’ he told me with a smile. ‘Some in China have called it the fifth invention — after navigation, gunpowder, printing and paper,’ he laughs. ‘But that’s too much.’

He went to work on miniaturising the device further, and refining the mechanism for vaporising nicotine in response to a puff. Why did he do it, I asked. ‘To solve a social problem,’ he replied. ‘Quitting is suffering.’

After eight months of toxicology testing by the Pharmaceutical Authority in Liaoning and by the Chinese military’s medical institute, the product went on sale. There was modest interest in China, but it was only when firms began selling versions in Europe and North America, about eight years ago, that the vaping revolution took off.

Today more than a million smokers in Britain have quit by using e-cigarettes, and at least another million have cut down. The number is growing all the time, and it’s now easily the most popular method of quitting tobacco. That means a lot less lung cancer, heart disease, stinky clothing and fire risk. What’s more, none of these people had to get a prescription, or be subsidised by the taxpayer or treated by the NHS, as with other methods of quitting such as patches, gum, psychiatry or acupuncture. It’s a purely voluntary, private-sector solution.

You would think the public health authorities would be shouting this from the rooftops, but the Welsh government is trying to ban the use of e-cigarettes in enclosed public spaces, the British Medical Association remains implacably disapproving, the World Health Organisation censorious, and the European Commission set on banning refillable versions. Southern Rail is banning vaping on its trains from next month, and Starbucks, Caffè Nero, All Bar One, and KFC also have bans.

The opponents fear that vaping is a gateway into smoking, when all the evidence suggests it’s a floodgate out. The number of ‘never smokers’ who vape remains negligible. I am genuinely baffled by how hard it is to get medics to understand the concept of harm reduction: that if people are doing something harmful but hard to give up, you should encourage them to switch to something much less harmful that satisfies their urges. They talk of vaping as ‘renormalising smoking’, which makes about as much sense as saying coffee-drinking renormalises whisky-drinking. It’s denormalising smoking.

There is a hint that these die-hard prohibitionists are losing allies, though. The anti-smoking group Ash, the British Heart Foundation, the Royal College of Physicians and even Cancer Research UK have come out against the Welsh ban, and effectively in favour of letting vaping drive out smoking. The penny is dropping.

Perhaps we should do a controlled experiment. Divide the country in two. In one part — let’s call it Wales — we regulate e-cigarettes as medicines, ban their use in enclosed public places, restrict advertising, ban the sale of refillable versions, and ban the sale of e-cigarettes stronger than 20 milligrams per millilitre. All these measures have been urged or are in the pipeline.

In the other part, England, we leave them as consumer products, regulated as such, let them be advertised as glamorous, let them be used on trains and in pubs, allow the sale of refills, allow the sale of flavoured ones, and allow stronger products. We encourage their use: the Health Secretary even goes on television to urge smokers to try them. In which country would the death rate fall fastest?

Given that there is no evidence that vaping is harmful, that the toxic contents of vapour are far, far fewer and less abundant than those of smoke, and that most experts think vaping is a thousand times safer than smoking, it is a racing certainty that England would see the better outcome.

Mr Hon now works for Fontem Ventures, a Dutch-based subsidiary of Imperial Tobacco. (He says he is at last looking forward to making some serious money from his invention.) The fact that the tobacco industry has bought up many of the small firms that dominated the vaping industry in its first decade makes doctors highly suspicious.

They have hated Big Tobacco for so long that they cannot bring themselves to believe it might abandon the weed. Their conspiracy theory is that the tobacco industry is getting hold of this technology so it can win back society’s support for something that at least looks like smoking and then — bang! — at the appropriate moment announce that smoking has become acceptable again. Or something. It’s that illogical.

Isn’t it much more likely that tobacco executives looked across at vaping firms a few years ago and realised that if they didn’t join them they would be beaten by them? It would be their Kodak moment — like when the huge film firm failed to adapt to the digital photography revolution and died. It is surely great news if the tobacco industry turns itself into a nicotine-vapour industry instead and stops killing people.

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Show comments
  • chillwind

    I had my first
    cigarette when I was 10 yrs old. At fifteen and having left school
    and working as an engineering apprentice, I was on 10 a day. By the
    time I married at 26, I was on 40 a day. It stayed that way for
    another 33 yrs with countless failed attempts to quit. Then, in June
    2013, I tried my first e-cig. I’ve never smoked a proper cigarette
    since. After a year of vaping and gradually reducing the nicotine
    strength, I stopped altogether in July 2014. It was so easy I still
    can’t believe it. I don’t have any cravings at all. I will never
    smoke again. And it’s all thanks to vaping.

    • PaD

      Similar history of smoking…began around 12 and other than a 2weeks abatement in my early20s,continued for 55years..a brain aneurysm was discovered in January this year and I immediately went on e-igs…early days I know but 5months without a real roll-up represents a massive change for me..ok the thought of sudden death IS a factor…nevertheless(and my fingers are permanently crossed on this) a day at a time on ecigs has added up.
      The Welsh health police really need to just mind their own business on this..that goes for the other begrudgers..
      God bless Mr Hon..sorry if Ive miswrote his name…and good luck to all ecig users

  • Murgatroyd

    e-cigs are great. At the age of 47 and after being a smoker for 28 years I finally managed to quit exactly 8 months ago. I was only a light smoker but still found it impossible to stop for more than a few weeks. Gum and patches do not work because they do not replicate the act of smoking and the nicotine hit (the reason for smoking in the first place) is just not there. Despite plenty of reasons to start smoking again, e.g. the death of my mother last December, I have managed to keep off the cigarettes and am already reducing the nicotine strength and the number of vapes per day. Thanks to e-cigs, for the first time in my adult life I no longer want to smoke.

  • Eric Blake

    This man should get the Nobel Prize for Science. I have seen so many smokers switch to ecigs and it made a huge difference in their lives. Their health improves because they are no longer sucking in all that smoke and ash. The drive to ban them is totally insane.

    • post_x_it

      What is “the Nobel Prize for Science”?

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    We’re all victims of the Tobacco Industry.

  • Norman

    Quit thirty years of smoking two years ago by switching to vaping, quit vaping one year ago, two months after that was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and returned to vaping to control flares after being informed about the nicotine connection. I now use 2mg/ml liquid and have not had a problem with my UC since.

    Open tank systems work, banning them will just create a black market.

  • hmm

    I QUIT using one of these e cigarettes i used to smoke for 30 years i reduced my nicotine done from 36 mg to 0 mg nicotine in 12 weeks have not smoked tobbaco or used a e cigarette fo over 4 years now nicotine free tobbaco free patches and gum did not even work for me Thanks for this fantastic invention

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  • WillyTheFish

    In terms of risk, my GP summed it up well, I thought.

    I gave us smoking tobacco (pre-vaping) and was using nicotine gum. However, I was using more than the recommended amount and the notes on the packet indicated that this was dangerous. I asked my GP’s opinion. He said: “Yes it is risky, but tobacco smoking is lethal. Given a choice between the dangerous and the lethal, dangerous is the better bet”.

    Sound advice and I have not smoked tobacco for nearly twenty years.

  • Mnestheus

    Had Matt done more research he would have encountered this 8 September 1997 Forbes column,

    Making the world safe for cigarettes

    by Russell Seitz

    “… Why doesn’t the government put some money into cigarette
    safety? Given that some people are determined to smoke no matter what the
    docs tell them, isn’t their safety something the feds should be concerned

    Yes, you could make life safer for inhalers of both firsthand and
    secondhand smoke. You could reduce cigarette tar emissions and improve
    building air-cleaning systems.

    Smoke is no more wanted by smokers than coffee grounds by cappuccino
    addicts or a hangover by drinkers of red wine. No one suggests that,
    instead, we should ban coffee or red wine. Or automobiles. Vast sums have
    been spent to good effect on reducing auto emissions and on curing, as
    well as preventing, AIDS.

    Modern advances in air-quality improvement indoors and out have been
    monumental. But the arsenal of combustion science has yet to be brought to
    bear on the politically anathemetized cigarette. Just as gasoline taxes
    contribute to eliminating highway hazards, taxes imposed on smokers should
    go toward bringing the technology of nicotine ingestion out of its
    horse-and-buggy days.

    The hazard of smoking is a problem for the National Institutes of Health
    to solve, not for the FDA to mandate out of existence.

    Can’t we volatilize a drop of active ingredient without generating a
    thousand times its weight in burning leaves?

    Only one-tenth of one percent of a cigarette is nicotine, and it should
    not take a rocket scientist to devise a means of volatilizing that small
    drop of active ingredient without generating a thousand times its weight
    in burning leaves….”

  • TrulyDisqusted

    It’s ALL about the money. It’s only ever about the money.

    Governments hate vaping because the money is being made by the wrong kind of firms.

    Governments are in cahoots with big tobacco and big pharmaceuticals and will do everything to protect their profits (and their donations to political parties).

    Big tobacco are buying up vaping firms because they see they can continue to profit from ex-smokers whilst they are non tobacco consuming vapers (and because vaping is a cheaper business model to growing tobacco) and Big Pharma don’t want anyone giving up tobacco unless they do it using multiples of their products over multiple quitting attempts.

    Governments, keen to keep the donations coming will do anything to get vaping products reclassified as medicines as the production and licensing costs will drive out all the smaller players putting all future profits from vaping firmly back in the hands of Big tobacco and Big Pharma.

    It’s not about protecting health, it’s about protecting profits and the political donations made by way of thanks.

  • Corbus

    Yeah bla bla. Now kids smoke that shît that would never have smoked at all.

    We’ll see in a few decades if / how bad e-smoking was for you.

  • James Logan

    Hon Lik is a great figure in the vaping community, and there is no doubt that his research has saved many, many lives from the torment of tobacco. If anybody would like some further reading then here is an interview with one of the leading researchers into e-cigarettes: http://blog.getvape.co.uk/exclusive-interview-dr-farsalinos-regulation/

  • SnugglesOfSarcasm

    what piss-poor research. Hon Lik didn’t invent anything. He innovated upon the invention of Herbert Gilbert from 1963. Get your friggin’ facts straight before setting out to write an article on a subject you have no knowledge of.

  • An Idiot

    When asked why he’s more worried about nicotine than caffeine, his respsonse is a complete hand-waving bullshit non-answer. Buh-buh-buh, it’s addictive, it’s a neurotransmitter–no, it’s not a neurotransmitter, and caffeine affects neurotransmission just as well, and a caffeine addiction is EASILY the star in the world of normalized drug addictions. Even more regrettable is the fact that this is a shining example of how being considered an expert in a broad field doesn’t preclude laughable short-sightedness in specific cases. Jesus tapdancing Christ.