When Herbert Gilbert, a scrapyard worker from Pennsylvania, patented what he called a “smokeless non-tobacco cigarette” in 1963, the response was underwhelming.
People wondered why it was needed. They could already smoke anywhere – including at work, in hospital rooms, on airplanes, in stores – why did they need such a device?
Some doctors at that time had speculated that smoking tobacco was unhealthy, but it wasn’t until 1964 when the U.S. Surgeon General released a report that held cigarette smoking responsible for a 70 percent increase in the mortality rate of smokers over non-smokers. The increase was due to ailments such as cancer, emphysema and coronary heart disease.
So in addition to being able to smoke anywhere they liked, most smokers in 1963 were not in search of a healthier alternative.
Attempts to sell Gilbert’s invention – which was nicotine-free and worked by replacing burning tobacco and paper with “heated, moist, flavored air,” according to the patent – failed and the idea fell by the wayside.
In 2003, a Chinese man reintroduced the idea and patented the first electronic cigarette with nicotine. Hon Lik, a 52-year-old pharmacist, inventor and smoker, reportedly sought to make a healthier cigarette after his father, a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer. He designed e-cigs to give smokers the nicotine they crave without the tobacco, smoke and the thousands of chemicals both contain. He first sold his e-cigs in China and then internationally.
Since being re-introduced, there has been much discussion about the safety of e-cigs and much confusion about how they differ from traditional cigarettes. They have been scrutinized worldwide and banned in certain countries and cities. And they are often lumped in with tobacco products, making it difficult for consumers to decide if e-cigs are right for them. Despite the scrutiny, the e-cigarette business continues to grow and consumers are finding an increasing number of options in regards to everything from flavorings to nicotine-levels.
Below are highlights from the history of e-cigs in the U.S.
Electronic Cigarettes in U.S. – A Brief Timeline
Source: The Consumer Advocates for Smokefree Alternatives Association (CASAA)
2006-2007: Electronic cigarettes introduced to the U.S.
September 2008: The World Health Organization (WHO) rules that electronic cigarette are not a legitimate smoking cessation aid and demands that marketers immediately remove from their materials any suggestions that the WHO considers electronic cigarettes safe and effective.
March 2009: The FDA directs the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to reject the entry of electronic cigarettes into the U.S. The FDA notifies electronic cigarette company, "Smoking Everywhere" that its shipments have been refused entry into the U.S. The FDA maintains that electronic cigarettes appear to be a “combination drug-device product" that requires preapproval, registration and listing with the FDA.
May 2009: The FDA tests two brands of electronic cigarettes, NJOY & Smoking Everywhere. Eighteen cartridges are tested. Tests reveal trace amounts of tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNAs) in the liquid in levels comparable to those found in FDA-approved nicotine cessation products. The liquid of one cartridge is found to contain a non-toxic amount (approximately 1 percent) of diethylene glycol. TSNAs nor diethylene glycol is detected in the vapor. Some cartridges labeled as 0mg nicotine are shown to contain trace amounts of nicotine.
July 2009: Two months after testing, the FDA issues a press release discouraging the use of electronic cigarettes and repeating previously stated concerns that electronic cigarettes may be marketed to young people, lack appropriate health warnings and that they contain carcinogens and toxic chemicals such as diethylene glycol, an ingredient used in antifreeze. The FDA did not reveal that the carcinogens found were similar to those found at the same levels in FDA-approved nicotine cessation products, nor that the amount of diethylene glycol found would not be toxic. The FDA also did not disclose that neither substance was found in the actual vapor to which the user is exposed.
August 2009: In a Washington Times op-ed, Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health, calls the FDA press statement about electronic cigarettes "distorted, incomplete and misleading.” She says the statement is meant to "scare Americans" to stay "away from these newfangled, untested cigarette substitutes – better to stick with the real ones." In Suffolk County, N.Y., officials pass the first legislation banning indoor use of electronic cigarette in areas where smoking is also prohibited.
September 2009: California passes a bill to ban the sales of electronic cigarettes in the state. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoes the bill stating, "If adults want to purchase and consume these products with an understanding of the associated health risks, they should be able to do so unless and until federal law changes the legal status of these tobacco products."
February 2011: Study is published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reporting that electronic cigarettes are a promising tool to help smokers quit, producing six-month abstinence rates that are better than those for traditional nicotine replacement products. Also this month, the U.S. Department of Transportation says the use of smokeless electronic cigarettes on airplanes is prohibited and announces its intention to issue an official ban.
April 2011: The FDA announces it will regulate e-cigarettes as it currently regulates traditional cigarettes and other tobacco products under the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act. However, any e-cigarette products advertising claims of helping the user to stop smoking or providing any other health benefit will be more strictly regulated as a drug or medical device.
August 2011: Study published in the journal, "Addiction," provides strong evidence that electronic cigarettes are being used with success by many smokers to quit smoking or cut down substantially on the number of cigarettes they consume, and that e-cigarettes are being used with success by many ex-smokers to remain off cigarettes.
October 2011: The results of the first clinical trial of electronic cigarettes, reported in the journal, “BMC Public Health,” suggests e-cigarettes may be more effective than traditional products for smoking cessation and may be particularly effective for smokers who are not motivated to quit.