The beginnings of the electronic cigarette can be traced back to Herbert A. Gilbert, who patented a device, in 1963, that was described as a “smokeless non-tobacco cigarette”. The device claimed to “replace burning tobacco and paper with heated, moist, flavored air.” Same as the e-cigarettes of today, the device heated the nicotine solution and produced a steam. In 1967, Gilbert was approached by several companies interested in manufacturing it. However, Gilbert never commercialized the device and it disappeared from the public record after 1967.
Birth of the modern e-cigarette
The person widely credited with the invention of the first generation electronic cigarette is Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik. In 2003, Lik came up with the idea of using a piezoelectric ultrasound-emitting element to vaporise a pressurized jet of liquid containing nicotine diluted with propylene glycol.
This design produces a vapor that resembles smoke, which can be inhaled and provides a vehicle for the delivery of nicotine into the bloodstream through the lungs, which is the same way a traditional cigarette delivers nicotine into the bloodstream. Hon Lik also came up with the idea of placing the solution of nicotine and propylene glycol, also referred to as e-liquid or e-juice, into a disposable plastic cartridge which can serve as both, the reservoir for the liquid and a mouthpiece.
The company that Hon Lik worked for, Golden Dragon Holdings, changed its name to Ruyan, which means “resembling smoking”, and started exporting its products in 2005-2006 before they received their first international patent in 2007.
The electronic cigarette continued to evolve from the first generation three-part device. In 2006 the “cartomizer” was invented by Umer and Tariq Sheikh. The cartomizer is a device that integrates the heating coil into the liquid chamber. The device was launched in the UK in 2007 in the under the Gamucci brand and is now widely used by most of the ‘cigalike’ brands.
The FDA classified e-cigarettes as drug delivery devices, which made them subject to regulation under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA). The classification was challenged in court, and overruled in January 2010 by Federal District Court Judge Richard, citing that “the devices should be regulated as tobacco products rather than drug or medical products.”
In March 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia stayed the injunction pending an appeal, during which the FDA argued the right to regulate electronic cigarettes based on their previous ability to regulate nicotine replacement therapies such as nicotine gum or patches. The FDA also argued that tobacco legislation enacted the previous year “expressly excludes from the definition of ‘tobacco products’ any article that is a drug, device or combination product under the FDCA, and provides that such articles shall be subject to regulation under the pre-existing FDCA provisions.
In December 2010, the appeals court ruled against the FDA, ruling the FDA can only regulate electronic cigarettes as tobacco products, and can’t block their import. The judges ruled that drug legislation would only cover these products if they were marketed for therapeutic use. E-cigarette manufacturers had successfully proven that their products were targeted at smokers and not people who wanted to quit smoking.
Since there aren’t federal regulations for electronic cigarettes, many states and cities have adopted their own regulations, the most common of which is to prohibit sales to minors.
New York City has gone one step further, by regulating the use of e-cigarettes the same as tobacco cigarettes. The bill was signed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg on his second to last day in office after the council approved the regulation. One of the arguments from proponents of the bill was a need for contrast between on the one hand claiming usage “safe” and on the other “safer than cigarettes, but potentially dangerous.”
This same claim is the also the basis for the argument of the opponents, who feel that electronic cigarettes shouldn’t be lumped together with tobacco cigarettes because, whether “safe” or “safer” they aren’t as dangerous as tobacco cigarettes.