The Science of E-Cigs

Growth may depend on whether devices are classified as tech products or smoking devices

Melissa Vonder Haar, Freelance Writer

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Tobacco product or cessation device? Reduced-harm alternative or trendy gateway to underage smoking?

Whether on NPR, in The New York Times or at a local tobacco shop, there’s plenty of debate on how electronic cigarettes should be classified. Yet rarely do you hear these products described as what they truly are: tech devices.

Just look at the rapid rate at which e-cigs have innovated since they burst onto the scene in 2003: The sleek, inexpensive and user-friendly products of today bear little resemblance to their heavy, awkward— and costly—predecessors.

“The product that you saw just two years ago is dramatically different than you see today because of innovation,” says Miguel Martin, president of Pompano Beach, Fla.-based Logic Technologies.

“An electronic cigarette is more than just a consumable,” agrees Andries Verleur, CEO and co-founder of Miami-based V2 Cigs. “As with other small-electronics categories, innovation and a rapid upgrade cycle are critical to ensure ongoing consumer interest. That’s why you see a new iPhone every summer: The technology has to evolve to remain a viable option and stay competitive.”

Such a rate of innovation has been largely foreign to the tobacco category, in which most new products have centered on flavors or packaging as opposed to how the products actually operate. It’s this potential that has attracted even longtime tobacco manufacturers, such as Swisher International, Jacksonville, Fla.

“Cigarettes, cigars and smokeless tobacco have been around for centuries, and while there is some new innovation, there is far more potential for innovation in the e-cigarette category,” says Ed Denk, Swisher’s director of marketing. “I think technology being the driving factor will make it easier for companies and brands with the best innovations and product offerings to succeed, rather than the one with the most money to promote or the lowest price. This is totally different than what we see in the traditional tobacco segments.”

Echoing Denk’s sentiments, Wells Fargo analyst Bonnie Herzog says, “When you’re talking about combustible cigarettes, innovation is important. But when you’re talking about e-cigarettes, I think it’s critical—especially where we’re at in the life cycle of this growing segment.”

The question is whether governing bodies such as the FDA will allow the segment to grow through technology and science- based innovations. Verleur describes these kinds of advancements as “critical to furthering the industry’s success,” meaning the application of the strict, lengthy new product requirements for cigarettes could stifle a segment still in its infancy.

“It’s through technology advancement that we’ll meet our goal of making the e-cig experience closer to the traditional one,” Verleur says. “Candidly, I don’t believe that ‘gold standard’ has been reached yet.”

But are we close? A deeper look at the science behind these tobacco-tech hybrids certainly shows tech-based innovation is happening at many different companies, in many different ways.

The Basics

Just as few people truly understand the inner workings of a smartphone, it’s equally rare to find a consumer who gets the complexities of an e-cigarette.

While smokers can grasp the combustible triggers of a traditional cigarette, electronic cigarettes are a different story. Just look at how Richard Smith, spokesman for Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Reynolds American Inc., defines an e-cig: “a battery-powered device that heats a solution containing nicotine, creating vapor that is inhaled.”

“In very simplistic terms, the products activate when a user draws on its end,” Denk says. “A battery inside the unit is activated by the air flow and heats a coil; when the e-liquid contacts this heated coil, the liquid vaporizes and is inhaled by the user.” Sounds like simple chemistry.

Consider what Reynolds calls the “Smart Technology” that, it says, distinguishes Reynolds’ Vuse e-cigs from the field.

“Vuse incorporates a microprocessor- based control system that works in tandem with a SmartMemory chip to regulate and monitor major product characteristics, including puff count, puff duration, battery performance and V-Liquid cartridge management,” Smith says in an email interview.


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