BEIJING (AFP) ― The Chinese inventor who dreamed up the electronic cigarette in a nicotine-induced vision says that despite its global popularity, copycat versions and legal disputes mean he has battled to cash in on his creation.
“Smoking is the most unhealthy thing in people’s everyday lives .... I’ve made a big contribution to society,” said Hon Lik, 57, in a cramped office in Beijing, sending tobacco-scented smoke into the air as he puffed on a battery-powered pipe.
“But I don’t live like a rich person, because of all the troubles our company has faced.”
Hon, a soft-spoken man from northwestern China, is the co-founder of Ruyan, a company which has produced electronic cigarettes and cigars ― starting at 68 yuan ($11) ― for more than a decade.
His patents are set to be sold in a $75 million deal with Britain’s Imperial Tobacco, but Hon says he will see little of the windfall, and that years of copyright disputes and negative publicity have eroded his profits.
His battles highlight rising competition in a market that’s skyrocketed to $2 billion in global sales, according to research firm Euromonitor International.
E-cigarettes, as the devices are commonly known, heat a liquid nicotine solution to turn it into vapour.
Manufacturers say a lack of tar and other ingredients, as well as an absence of smoke, makes the devices safer than conventional cigarettes.
Research from the British medical journal The Lancet in August called them more effective than nicotine patches in helping smokers quit.
Early e-cigarette designs were drawn up in the U.S. as early as the 1960s, but Hon is acknowledged among industry commentators as the first person to develop a viable commercial version.
He came up with his design in 2003 while working as a medical researcher and trying to quit a pack-a-day habit developed in his teens.
“In the evenings I sometimes forgot to take off my nicotine patch, which gave me nightmares all night,” he said.
In one dream Hon said he found himself drowning in a sea that turned into a cloud of vapour, giving him inspiration for the product which he scribbled down on a bedside notepad.
After a year spent perfecting the design, he said, sales took off and by 2006 Ruyan was “producing 24 hours a day with demand still exceeding supply.”
But that same year, media reports that described his products as addictive and causing heart attacks dented sales.
China’s tobacco sales administration accused the company of irresponsible advertising and recommended Beijing shops stop selling its products.
Hon said China’s state-run tobacco industry ― a powerful lobby that contributes as much as 10 percent to total government revenues, according to the U.S.-based Brookings Institution ― was wary of the competition.