It’s clear even from a cursory glance around the vaping industry in 2018 that the choice that a quitting smoker has is more varied now than ever before. And despite controversially strong regulation in many countries, trade is thriving.
And all this despite the industry only being about a decade old in the west, and only five years older in China, where the first commercially-viable e-cigarette was developed. Consider that smartphones have only been around for about the same amount of time—and haven’t encountered nearly the same amount of regulatory pushback.
But how did we get here?
A brief rundown of how we got here
This progress is generally divided into three ‘generations’, each representing a paradigm shift in what an e-cigarette is.
First generation e-cigarettes are commonly referred to as ‘cigalikes’ because of how much they’re like tobacco cigarettes. You’ve probably seen one. Many are rechargeable but feature tiny batteries, and aren’t configurable beyond which flavour cartridge you attach to the end.
The second generation of e-cigarettes come in the form of ‘vape pens.’ They feature rechargeable integrated batteries and tanks for filling with e-liquids, hugely expanding the number of available flavours and experiences. The integrated batteries hold a lot more charge than first generation cigalike batteries, but are comparably a lot larger.
Third generation e-cigarettes introduced the ‘mod’: a case for an bigger, more powerful battery, often with some circuitry to handle the power output of the battery. The more powerful batteries allow for more nicotine delivery and the circuit allows the user to configure their device to their exact specification.
A fourth generation of e-cigarette is now coming onto the scene, driven by products like the JUUL. And they represent a huge break with the ‘more, and bigger’ progression of e-cigarettes hitherto.
See, these fourth-gen e-cigarettes are much smaller—about the size of a traditional cigarette. The JUUL features a tiny battery, and isn’t configurable beyond the flavour cartridge you attach to the end.
JUUL vs first-gen
What’s stranger still is that e-cigarettes like the JUUL don’t improve on the performance of their first-gen counterparts. Consider the Vapourlites VL4 for example. It’s a rechargeable first-generation cigalike. Each cartridge contains the same amount of nicotine as 2 packs of tobacco cigarettes. The battery comes with 5 refills and costs £9. You can buy 50 refill cartridges for £70. That’s £1.40 per cartridge—or £0.70 per pack of cigarettes’ worth of nicotine.
The JUUL, on the other hand, costs about £36 (USD $50) for the battery and 4 replacement cartridges. Each cartridge is said to contain the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes A 4-pack of replacement cartridges costs about £11.50, which translates to £2.85 per pack of cigarettes’ worth of nicotine.
Wait. Let’s roll that back. A JUUL costs about 4 times more to own and operate than a VL4 does. So what’s going on here?
A couple of things going on here
Mainly, fourth-gen e-cigarettes like the JUUL just tend to be better than their earlier counterparts.
They tend to adopt non-traditional form factors (the JUUL looks like a very long, sleek USB stick) and are very well designed. By all accounts, JUUL also delivers a fantastic vape. Instead of freebase nicotine, it uses nicotine salt, which is said to give a more tobacco-like throat hit. Nicotine salt also contains a much higher concentration of nicotine, which means less power to vaporise, which means a longer-lasting battery, which means getting caught out with a dead e-cigarette less often.
But maybe more than any of these other factors, fourth-gen e-cigarettes dominate on the high end of the market. That’s a niche that e-cigarettes have tended not to chase, historically.
A short economics break, feel free to skip
See, people looking to quit smoking have never been at a loss for cheap e-cigarettes. Cheap manufacturing and cheap components have allowed e-cigarette companies to price themselves significantly below tobacco, and, in a lot of cases, even nicotine replacement therapies.
Lower prices encourage wider adoption, and prices are at their all-time lows. This is why e-cigarettes have exploded in popularity in the past ten years: anyone who wants one, can have one. And those high adoption rates have been reflected in legislation, as well. In 2008, the World Health Organization slammed e-cigarettes because there was “no scientific evidence to confirm the product’s safety and efficacy.” By 2018, Public Health England has issued an evidence review stating that e-cigarettes offer a 95% safer alternative to smoking.
Thus far, e-cigarette companies have been racing to the bottom of the market, and buyers have been loving it. But there’s only so low they can go; soon the race to the bottom becomes unprofitable. At the absolute bottom of the market, companies are giving their products away for free (although let’s get real—this never happens in real life).
But what about companies racing to the top of the market? What’s the top? A product of infinitely good quality and infinitely high price? That doesn’t make sense. What about a product of really good quality and really high price? Think of the iPhone X. It’s very good, but it’s also very expensive. And it’s up to individuals to decide if it’s good enough to be worth buying.
Enter manufacturers like JUUL.
JUUL makes a really good quality product and sells it at a really high price (comparable to its competitors). They hope that people looking for an e-cigarette are going to think it’s good enough to be worth buying at that price.
Judging by the statistics, they’re right. At the beginning of 2018, JUUL is manufacturing 20 million JUUL cartridges a month, and they’re looking to ramp up to 40 million a month. And Tiger Global and Fidelity Investment, huge venture capital firms, seem to believe in them.
So, is vape technology actually going backward?
Yes and no.
The technologically simple e-cigarette market is broadening, which means that we’re seeing a lot of e-cigarette companies release products which build iteratively on their predecessors. That is, they don’t feature any new technologies; they just do old technologies a little better.
But the technologically complex e-cigarette market is also growing. Mods with automatic temperature controls, increasingly complicated circuitry, and coils made of extremely low-resistance alloys can be purchased just about anywhere.
Vape technology is moving in just about every direction at once. But while this might sound confusing, what it really means for the average user is that today is the best time to start vaping yet.