Hon Lik, the inventor of the e-cigarette, had hoped to kick his heavy smoking – the habit that killed his father. But the pharmacist, from Shenyang in north-east China, did not manage to quit. He now uses both – but says he only smokes tobacco because he has to check the flavours in his devices.
Before e-cigarettes took the world by storm, Hon was working on simpler ways for people to take Chinese remedies, such as ginseng and deer antler. Speaking through a translator in a basement room of the Conrad Hilton in St James’s Park in London, he speaks of how he had patents on pills before he hit on the idea of registering his claim to e-cigarettes in the most lucrative market in the world – not China, where there is still little interest, but the US.
He is neither a celebrity in China nor especially rich, he says. “If you are looking at the house I live in, it is average, and the car I am driving I did not buy,” Hon says. “It is a Volvo SUV. Before I started developing e-cigarettes, I had already made my success through the small-scale, very niche company I worked for. My family and I were pretty well rewarded. They do not have to work that much any more.”
The car belongs, in fact, to Fontem Ventures, the Netherlands-based subsidiary of the UK’s Imperial Tobacco, which bought Hon’s patents for $75m (£49m) in 2013. More accurately, it bought the patents from Dragonite, the Hong Kong-based company that Hon had set up years earlier with a fellow Chinese investor. Hon himself received only a small fraction of the money, but is now employed as a consultant by Fontem, which flies him round the world to talk about the birth of the e-cigarette.
Hon devised the gadget to quit smoking and talks of the “global social problem” he believes he can help solve. Yet he has sold his rights to big tobacco, which many in the public health community in the UK believe is using e-cigarettes as a stalking horse, with the covert objective of renormalising smoking. Hon – a quiet, undemanding man – sees no contradiction.
He appears to think it is quite reasonable that Fontem could exist as a completely separate entity, in effect working against everything Imperial stands for. “What Fontem is doing is quite the opposite [from Imperial],” he says. “Fontem shares my values. The e-cigarette is the alternative to smoking cigarettes.”
He is impressed, he says, by the subsidiary’s innovative scientific approach and its commitment to research and development. Fontem’s products – Jai in France and Italy and Puritane in the UK – are in shops rather than just available on the internet. Hon suggests that may be a better way to reach more smokers. “By using the existing distribution channels of the tobacco companies to tobacconists, maybe it is the best way for consumers to access e-cigarettes,” he says.
Asked about the newly announced ban in Wales on vaping in public places, Hon says “it is probably over-concern” and may be “fear driven”. There is a growing consensus in Europe and the US that people who switch to e-cigarettes do not go back to smoking and that non-smokers do not start. People need to be properly informed, he says, and then he embarks on a story. “In ancient times, thousands of years ago in China, there was a man now recognised as a hero who started to organise water management in areas where lots of people lost their lives and homes to floods,” he begins. “His name was Daya.”
Instead of building dykes to keep the water out, Daya used pumps and channels to allow the water to go where it was useful, he explains. “He recognised what the real risks were and changed the conventional way of thinking. That’s how China started to become such a rich agricultural nation.”
The message, said Hon, is that innovative ways of doing things – which may at first encounter resistance – may deliver results. Hon’s own moment of revelation came when he woke up one morning after a night full of bad dreams and realised he had been wearing his nicotine patch while he was sleeping. He came to think that the only satisfactory way to deliver nicotine alone in a relaxing fashion which might enable one to give up conventional cigarettes was through some form of smoking.
The breakthrough came in 2003, when he hit on the idea of using a piezoelectric ultrasound element to vaporise a nicotine solution in a device resembling a cigarette. These days battery-powered heating elements do the job, but the concept was born, the patents were lodged and in due course, Imperial – through Fontem – came calling. The technology is now well established and many companies are making e-cigarettes. Fontem is picking fights with the bigger ones – it has seven cases going in the US and there were three in Germany, although two companies have settled. It is also in the process of acquiring the world’s biggest selling e-cigarette brand, Blu, which RJ Reynolds is selling in the US.
Public health experts who are suspicious of big tobacco’s interest in e-cigarettes will not welcome the onward march of Fontem. But Hon sees in it nothing but good – both on the global level and the personal.
His father worked as a planner for the Chinese state, responsible for the distribution of electrical machinery. It was not until a few years after he retired that China opened up to enterprise, and he later died as a result of his smoking habit.
And when Hon went to study at the Liaoning College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, his profession was pretty much chosen for him, he says. But now he feels he has had the freedom to make a difference. He adds: “My real passion, like many other inventors, is to leave some trace behind.”
By Sara Bosley - The Guardian /June 9, 2015