Back in September, I mentioned that the e-cigarette company cheapelectroniccigarettes.co.uk had offered to donate 10p from every product sold to Cancer Research UK. I said at the time:
ASH (UK) have not, so far, demanded a ban on e-cigarettes (unlike their American namesakes). Since ASH receives substantial funding from Cancer Research, these new donations from the e-cigarette industry should ensure that things stay that way. Or will pressure from American fundamentalists and Big Pharma prevail?
It seems to have been the latter, since Cancer Research turned down the donation. Shortly afterwards, I interviewed the company's owner Michael Kitt to ask him about the proposed donation, the current state of the e-cigarette industry and what he expects to happen in the future. This is a transcript of that interview:
CS: Essentially what is the difference between the pharmaceutical nicotine inhaler and the e-cigarette?
MK: Very little. I’m not 100% sure about the technical differences but the e-cigarette uses more electronics to generate the smoke and atomise the vapour into the lungs. The inhaler, as far as I’m aware, is just a direct air pull through.
CS: Almost like an asthma inhaler?
MK: Almost. It’s along those lines, but without the aerosol. Like the ones you just suck on. What it does differently to the inhaler is that it provides a psychological experience. You’re not as aware that you’ve got an electronic instrument in your hand. You’re seeing the smoke coming out, you’re feeling the throat hit. You’re experiencing everything really. That’s why I think it’s going to take off better than the nicotine replacement therapies.
CS: What do you think the chances are of regulation? Could the e-cigarette even be banned?
MK: I think they’ve got a job on their hands to ban it. The FDA has made a mistake in the way they’ve tried to clamp down and say “No, it’s bad for you” because they seem to have done it with very, very little proof and a very biased report. I think it was 19 samples and one of those samples had an ingredient in that they consider makes it unsafe. And yet they’ve approved that same ingredient in cosmetics and food and loads of other things.
CS: Would you accept there’s a need for some regulation?
MK: Definitely. There’s too many questions and inconsistencies with what we do. There’s no real regulation about what’s got to be on the box. There’s no real regulation about any warnings that need to be given and, at the end of the day, nicotine is a poison.
CS: Would you like to see it available only to people over the age of 18?
MK: I think it needs to be. I don’t think many people under that age will buy them anyway because of the cost. Not many kids get £50 pocket money.
CS: What about the issue of flavouring? Various anti-smoking groups have said they’re flavoured to appeal to young people.
MK: They have, haven’t they? I suppose it’s the same principle as why do they allow flavoured alcohol? That’s not marketed to young people. Just because I’m 30 years old doesn’t mean I don’t like the taste of chocolate. I don’t think that’s purposefully trying to target it towards children. But the other regulatory side - child-proof containers and so on - needs to be clamped down on quite heavily. There’s nothing there at all at the moment.
CS: How many players are there in the UK market?
MK: There’s five manufacturers. As for dedicated electronic retailers, I think we’re the only one really dedicated that’s doing multiple brands. There are a few others who are selling them on Amazon, some people - like Click Shop - are mixing them in with lots of other products. CigZag are just about coming online.
CS: Where are they made, mainly China?
MK: They’re made in China, yeah.
CS: Who invented them?
MK: It was a guy who patented the Ruyan Jazz disposable one who actually owned the patent for the technology and then other licenses have come off that to produce the mini ones and what have you. NicoCig actually produce the Ruyan Jazz in the UK.
CS: When was it patented?
MK: 2003, 2004.
CS: So it really is very recent.
MK: Yeah, it’s not been long at all.
CS: And what are the messages coming out from government in the UK? Are there any?
MK: Not really. It’s still very under the radar. It’s purely, from what I can gather, being aware of the product. When I take mine out of a Friday or Saturday night, the number of people who ask about it is amazing and - so far - there’s been no negative reaction towards it. It’s difficult to explain how positive most people are about it. I saw a study once that said 98% of smokers would consider an alternative if it gave the whole package - if it was healthier obviously.
CS: And are you a smoker? Were you a smoker?
CS: So you smoke tobacco and these?
MK: No, just the e-cigarette now.
CS: And you gave up using these?
MK: Yes, but we can’t promote that!
CS: No. Unfortunately not. Your name came to my attention because you offered a donation to Cancer Research. I found it very interesting that they turned you down, and it makes me think that they’ve got it in for the e-cigarette.
MK: Possibly. I didn’t think they would decline it, but they did and that’s up to them really.
CS: Why do you think they turned down money that they could have used for cancer research?
MK: I think there’s a bit of pressure coming from some anti-smoking groups there, to be honest. They do accept donations from the people who make Nicorette, I believe, and other nicotine replacement therapies. So why they wouldn’t accept donations from us is up in the air. We don’t know anything for sure but I would hedge my bets towards them getting some pressure from someone. Whether it’s the anti-smoking groups or the government, I don’t know.
CS: The anti-smoking movement as a whole has a ‘quit-or-die’ approach; an ‘all or nothing’ approach. They would never encourage people to use chewing tobacco, low yield cigarettes or any tobacco product at all, with the exception of pharmaceutical products. The pharmaceutical industry is one of the world’s most powerful industries, whereas the e-cigarette industry is very small. It’s a bit under the radar and, presumably, you’re not particularly co-ordinated - as an industry - to defend yourselves?
MK: There’s the electronic cigarette association in American. They almost act like a regulatory body, to make sure the products are promoted in the right way. They’ll only accept people in that are not promoting them as smoking-cessation devices and aren’t making false claims about the health benefits. But over here [in the UK], as of yet, we’ve got nothing along those lines.
CS: ASH (US) has been extremely critical of the e-cigarette and wants to see it banned entirely. In the last few years, the way the media have reported things like ‘third-hand smoke’ has been completely uncritical and it’s easy to imagine that ASH (UK) could come out and say “Here’s this new, unregulated device which pumps out poisonous nicotine and diethylene glycol - as used in anti-freeze!” and it needs to be banned. Do you think that’s likely?
MK: I think it depends how much influence the American ASH and the worldwide ASH have over them. If it they have to do it, I think they probably will. But that’s just another argument for some kind of regulation. If the e-cigarette is regulated and if there are details about what needs to be provided in the same way that normal cigarettes are retailed then they should be happy as far as I can see.
CS: But doesn’t regulation require the product being taken off the market for years? Eight years is what they’re saying in America but it could take much more than eight years. If you want to do a study on lung cancer, you’re talking about a wait of at least 20 years, probably more like 50 years.
MK: Yeah. And you’ve got to have people smoking for that long.
CS: So to make sure the e-cigarette is 100% safe, you’ve got to have the product off the market for up to 50 years.
CS: Which could be a major problem for you!
MK: It could be but I don’t think it would ever get that far. If you look at mobile phones, for example, they’ve only been around for 10, 20 years now. We still don’t know what effect they have on the brain but they don’t take them off the market, otherwise they’d have no test subjects to test them on. And if the e-cigarette needs to be studied, it has to be studied while it’s out in the market. They can’t study it while no one’s using it!
CS: What about the claim that it’s a gateway to smoking?
MK: Again, it’s difficult because of the price of it. I can’t see young people spending £50 on a starter kid when they could get a pack of fags for £5. The argument they’re trying to make is that they’ll steal it from mum’s purse, but actually it’s more difficult to steal it from mum’s purse because there’s only one. Mum will notice that it’s gone missing more easily than the one cigarette missing from a packet of twenty.
CS: I’ve seen two figures online. One said that 79% of users have quit smoking successfully using the e-cigarette. The other said 72.5%. You can’t market the e-cigarette as a smoking-cessation device, I know, but is there any research underway to seriously get a figure on how effective it is for people who are trying to give up?
MK: Not that I’m aware of. There was a study done in South Africa that said 45% had quit smoking altogether within 6 months of taking up the e-cigarette.
CS: Why can’t you use these figures?
MK: Because there’s no medical backing to them. Without spending thousands or possibly millions on proper medical, clinical trials, there’s no clinical backing behind the figures. I can quote the ten or fifteen people a day who phone us up saying that they haven’t smoked for so long and that they’re very happy with it. Emotionally, that’s very nice but we can’t market those figures.
CS: Although you can’t market it as a smoking-cessation aid, from what I’ve read it seems to be a genuinely effective device. It’s all anecdotal at this stage, but they appear to be much more more effective than the pharmaceutical products, which have a failure rate of about 95%. And it makes you wonder how much power the pharmaceutical companies have over the anti-smoking groups, because I bet if 'Big Pharma' had invented the e-cigarette, it would be seen as the breakthrough of the 21st century.
MK: Absolutely. I don’t which way it will go and whether tobacco companies will start making them themselves.
CS: Could they do that? What’s the patent situation?
MK: If they get the license, there’s nothing to stop them. They’ve got the budgets to do it. They’ve got the facilities and the equipment. I can’t see why they couldn’t. It’s a question of whether they want to go down that route.
CS: What I find fascinating about the whole situation is that your competition in the nicotine market is the tobacco industry and the pharmaceutical industry.
MK: Two pretty big industries!
CS: Two very big industries but also two industries that are fighting each other. And they’re coming together...
MK: To fight this common enemy!
CS: This new, ‘rogue’ industry...
MK: ...which is a danger to their whole business model. It wasn’t that long ago that people thought nothing could ever cripple the tobacco industry, but if it’s done right there’s no reason why the e-cigarette couldn’t. I’ve tried it and have had great success with it and I know other people who’ve tried it and had great success with it. It is a great little product but it’s such a new industry and a new product that there’s so much needs to be done to get it into the mainstream.
CS: Are you allowed to advertise in the normal ways?
MK: There are some restrictions. You can’t advertise on things like Google Adwords, just as you can’t advertise tobacco products, but we could advertise on the radio.
CS: And what would you do if tomorrow the papers were full of stories about this new “terrifying” product that was “poisoning the air”?
MK: I don’t think it would damage us, to be honest. People aren’t stupid and since Google came along, people can look into a product.
CS: But in America, these scare stories have worked. Some places have banned them outright, others have banned them in public places.
MK: Yeah, but anyone who is seriously interested is going to go online and read the same stories that we’ve both read and probably come to the same conclusion - that it can’t be any worse than tobacco, and that’s all it needs.
CS: One thing I noticed when I went on one of the e-cigarette forums, is that when people start using the e-cigarettes, a lot of them very quickly become opposed to people smoking normal cigarettes. Maybe it’s the old thing about ex-smokers being the worst, but have you noticed this?
MK: I have noticed that actually.
CS: Is that something you feel yourself?
MK: I’ve noticed so much of a change in myself. I notice my clothes not smelling and I notice breathing easier and what have you. I’m not sure it doesn’t just come from pride though, and being able to say they’re a nonsmoker. It probably is the same mentality as when people give up and they become very anti-smokers.
CS: I like the term ‘analogue cigarettes’ for normal cigarettes
MK: Yeah! The digital switchover!
cheapelectroniccigarettes.co.uk is a UK based reseller of innovative electronic smoking products. There are more details on their website.