November 17, 2020
Welcome to the first article in our Spotlight on Rebuildables series. Where does any good series on rebuildables start but with a brief history of how and why they came to be? An e-cigarette is the most basic of devices, consisting of a power source, a switch, and a resistor. The first e-cigarettes on the European and North American markets were of the cig-alike variety, introduced in 2006 and 2007. They were based on the design of Hon Lik who, himself a smoker, invented the device after his father died of smoking-related lung cancer. They looked like cigarettes, contained a low-power battery, and delivered a small dose of nicotine vapour to the user. Early models were generally unsatisfying and ineffective but they had the massive effect of generating interest in the concept and excitement among beta users.
Convinced of the concept, users were sure that the technology could be improved upon. Some people started replacing the filters of their cig-alike cartridges with blue aquarium filter, which was cheaper than replacing cartridges and more porous than the absorbent material used in manufactured cartridges. Some determined that although the design itself was solid, it could be improved upon with better parts. Battery life was a major problem of early cigalikes-- they hardly lasted at all-- but if the power source were better… The first “mod” was created by removing the lightbulb from a small flashlight and modifying it to accommodate an e-cigarette atomizer. Early tinkerers were able to increase battery capacity tenfold using readily available parts, and they could use inexpensive and rechargeable batteries. Soon after, people began building their own devices from battery boxes and other containers, and experimenting with potentiometers to vary voltage. Of course, this kind of experimentation was rare and resulted in bulky, strange looking devices that wouldn’t hit the mainstream but it was the start of something important.
From about 2009, with the introduction of the eGo which boasted better battery life and a sleek, easily popularized design, advancement really picked up speed. While the original eGo was basically a cig-alike with a better battery, people were quick to see that a better atomizer would go a long way on a device like that. Cartomizers and then clearomizers soon appeared on the scene and, not far behind that, the first rebuildable atomizers.
At the same time as the technology was evolving, a community was growing up around it. Early users were eager to share their experiences and experiments, their problems and their successes. People discussed their ideas and thoughts in forums and in some of the first vape shops. They took to YouTube to explain more complicated processes and to evaluate the technology. The vape community, or vape family as many affectionately call it, grew out of these connections made worldwide between people with no other connection than the fact that most were former smokers and had an interest in vaping technology.
Forums and social media were critical in the early days of rebuildables and crowdsourcing has to be credited with improving the space. In fact, though people are quick to point to examples of idea-theft, a lot of people generously contributed time, know-how, and even designs with no expectation of reward or ownership. One of the first rebuildable tank designs (and possibly the most influential) was the Genisis RBA from E-cigarette Forum user Raidy, who gave away his plans for free. People took to YouTube to teach others how to build coils to replace factory-made offerings and improve their experiences, and how to make their own e-liquids. The DIY space was lively and interactive and extremely helpful to newer users, as it continues to be years later.
From a technology that “showed promise”, we now have thousands of products that cater to the adult smoking population with a whole range of personal preferences. Manufacturing standards have improved for hardware, e-liquids now come ready-made in countless unique flavour blends and a range of nicotine levels, good devices are available at accessible prices, and design improvements have made products safer and more effective. And it is worth noting that these changes took place organically, with pressure and guidance from early end-users, as tends to happen in the technological space.
The technology evolved with the end-user’s experience in mind, from an end-user’s perspective: how to create an offering competitive to cigarettes without the harm of a cigarette. It has been remarkably successful in that respect, with studies showing the consumer products not only rival but outcompete traditional nicotine replacement therapies. The trajectory has really been something, considering the grassroots nature of the space and the massively difficult problem that it was intended to tackle.
But it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the technology that shows the greatest promise of reducing smoking rates around the world was created by former smokers, for people who smoke. Smokers have been missing from the conversation in almost all of our tobacco control efforts over the years. They have been talked about and down to, rather than consulted directly, and coerced, shunned and taxed exorbitantly for their habit. It would take people with lived experience to ask how we can provide a better experience to smoking instead of just how do we eliminate smoking? A smoker will tell you that the first condition makes the latter considerably more likely.
We’ve learned a great deal over the years, since the first vaping devices arrived on the market and people began tearing them apart to build something better. The range of products is phenomenal and continues to expand, with offerings to appeal to the most finicky of customers. And we understand why and how the technology works: there is no putting the genie back in the bottle. Those in positions of power who seek to regulate vaping would do well to remember that.
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