E-cigarettes: miracle or health risk?
In 1963, a young Korean war veteran and committed 40-a-day smoker called Herbert A Gilbert from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, filed a patent for a product he described as a "smokeless non-tobacco cigarette". It functioned by gently heating a nicotine solution and producing inhalable steam, thereby "replacing burning tobacco and paper with heated, moist, flavoured air".
As the health risks of tobacco-smoking slowly began to emerge, Gilbert hopefully touted his device around the big tobacco and medical supplies companies. Several professed interest, but – at a time when, in Britain alone, some 70% of adult males were regular smokers – none apparently saw enough potential in his oddball invention to put any money into it.
Half a century on, after a decisive intervention by a Chinese pharmacist called Hon Lik, whose company Ruyan (literally, "Resembling Smoking") began exporting its version of the electronic cigarette in the mid-2000s, and – perhaps just as important – the widespread outlawing of tobacco smoking in enclosed public spaces in many western countries, the potential has become clearer.
In 2013, according to a survey by YouGov for the anti-tobacco charity Ash (Action on Smoking and Health), the number of e-cigarette users in the UK surged to 2.1 million, a three-fold increase over the previous year. The investment bank Goldman Sachs puts the products top of a list of "creative destroyers" – including big data, 3D printing and natural gas engines – that are likely to turn their markets upside down, and sees annual global sales of e-cigarettes hitting $10bn within a few years.
For V-Revolution in Covent Garden, which claims to be London's first shop dedicated exclusively to e-cigarettes, that means business is brisk. Since opening last May, the store has seen a 90% increase in custom, says assistant manager Elizabeth Playle. It now sells well over 50 reusable e-cigarettes a day – at prices, depending on their size and voltage, ranging from £25 to £90 each – plus many more bottles of e-juice, the liquid mixture of nicotine, flavourings and dilutants that the devices vapourise. Internet sales are booming.
"It's really, really taken off," says Playle, as a steady stream of dedicated vapers (as users are known) file in, try out a new flavour – some emulate the taste of traditional cigarettes, such as Chesterfield, Marlboro Red or Camel; others taste of apple, coffee, berries, tropical fruit, even piña colada – and hand over their £7.99 for a 20ml bottle, generally enough for the equivalent of around 200 cigarettes.