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Time for a vaping history lesson. It’s a story worth telling as it’s the genesis of this whole industry we now get to enjoy, and its humble beginnings were inspired by the very thing that many vapers share—the arduous quest to quit the tobacco habit.
The origins of vaping go back to China in the early 2000s, when a man named Hon Lik started designing a device to serve as a substitute for conventional cigarettes. This is the story of Hon Lik and his journey in creating the first e-cigarette.
Hon Lik (Han Li in Mandarin) was born in Shenyang, China on 26 September 1951. His father worked as a planner for the state, managing electrical machinery for factories.
As a young man living in the period of the Cultural Revolution, he had to find a career path fast. He worked in a faraway rural area at 18 to earn his education, where he started smoking. He then returned to the city to study pharmacy.
He has said that while he felt it had been forced upon him, he is grateful for having gone far with his trajectory. Upon graduating in 1982 with a pharmaceutical degree from Liaoning University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, he continued his studies in Liaoning Academy.
After finishing his studies, he spent the next decade in a plant agriculture state enterprise, mostly working on herbal remedies. In particular, he worked on manufacturing “a ginseng known as an aphrodisiac,” among some other things.
He then got married in 1984 and had a daughter six years later. In 1990, he became vice superintendent of his alma mater, Liaoning Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, where he was responsible for technology development. On October 2003, he became director of Western Technologies Corp.
A few years after his father retired, China opened up to enterprise, which gave rise to the country’s current economic boom. However, Hon’s life changed when his father suddenly fell terribly ill. Due to decades of smoking, his father was later diagnosed with late stage lung cancer.
Like his father, Hon had a daily two pack habit. His father’s illness prompted him to attempt quitting tobacco, but he found it difficult. Having been a heavy smoker for many years, the hook was deep in him. He tried using nicotine patches, but found himself craving a cigarette whenever he saw someone smoke.
He then realized that supplementing nicotine wasn’t enough as the ritual of smoking a cigarette—that oral fixation—was an integral part of the habit. For a tobacco-quitting method to be successful, it must be able to replicate that ritual of putting something between the lips and inhaling.
That was when he started designing what would then become the first e-cigarette, as well as the first eliquid, drawing from his pharmaceutical knowledge and engineering experience.
One night, Hon went to bed, but forgot to remove his nicotine patch. When he saw that he still had the patch on, he realized that the patch doesn’t give him the same head rush as smoking a cigarette, which was why he kept craving for a “real” cigarette.
Before coming upon the idea for the e-cigarette, he had worked on other alternatives using Chinese remedies like ginseng and deer antler. Their efficacy wasn’t up to snuff, so he then came upon the idea of vaporizing a liquid that can be inhaled to deliver nicotine through the lungs, which can then be absorbed through the bloodstream.
The premise behind his design is to enable the absorption of nicotine in the same manner as a conventional cigarette, but without the harmful additives like tar and other chemicals that cause lung cancer and other respiratory illnesses.
He went to work while still using nicotine patches to temporarily curb his cigarette cravings. In 2003, he worked on using food additives as solvents, as well as experimenting with vaporization by ultrasound. The first e-cigarette was first patented in China, Europe, and the United States in 2003, and it was manufactured with the ultrasound technology a year later.
However, the droplets formed by this vaporization didn’t resemble tobacco smoke because they were too big. Hon continued to work on his design, looking for ways to better emulate the effect of cigarette smoking. He then tried resistance heating and achieved better results, leading the way to the modern vape devices we have nowadays.
Once he solved the problems of the liquid and the vaporizer, his next problem was scaling down the vaporizer enough to make the device portable, as well as delivering the right amount of nicotine and having the right odors from harmless flavors. After all, it’s supposed to be a healthier alternative to conventional cigarettes.
The first commercial e-cigarette model was the Ruyan V8, made by Ruyan, the healthcare and pharmaceutical company Hon Lik co-founded. It consisted of 3 parts—a battery, a plastic cartridge containing a nicotine solution, and a heating element using an ultrasonic atomizer.
This was not the vaporization system that’s typically used today in modern vape devices. The idea is based on atomization, which uses ultrasound to turn the liquid into mist. Nowadays, vape devices use a battery-powered heating element rather than the ultrasonic technology Hon patented back in 2003.
Ruyan Group Holdings later became Golden Dragon Group Holdings, and then became Dragonite International. The e-cigarette technology soon spread, creating a demand in Europe and North America. Hon Lik served as chief executive officer, executive vice chairman, and non-executive director for eight years, from 2005 to 2013.
In 2013, the intellectual property of the e-cigarette that was owned by Hon Lik was acquired by Imperial Tobacco for $75 million.
Despite having come out with the first e-cigarette products, there was still little to no interest in China. However, market demand in Europe and North America rose, and that’s when the vaping industry really became established.
For a more detailed history on the continued evulution of ecigs and vaping devices, click HERE
Hon is hailed as the father of modern vaping for good reason. His invention has saved countless lives that were gripped by conventional tobacco. He was nominated as a candidate for the 2010 Kcancer Hero award due to his invention. He has stated that he sees his invention as comparable to “the digital camera taking over from the analog camera.”
He has also expressed the hope that international pharmaceutical companies will start manufacturing e-cigarettes and regulatory organizations like the USFDA will impose strict standards to ensure safety of e-cigarette products.