Speaking from Beijing, pharmacist Hon Lik, spoke to P3 about his passion for the rapidly growing, and sometimes controversial, e-cigarette sector. What will the future hold?

Smoking up to three packs of cigarettes a day led Beijing pharmacist Hon Lik to start thinking about how he could reduce his levels of smoking.

His development of an inhaler, that aimed to satisfy the smoker’s ‘need for taste and also my behavioral and psychological need’, was championed by the company he worked for, resulting in the launch, to China, of the first e-cigarette.

Since the filing of the first patent in 2003, the worldwide market for e-cigarettes has snowballed and continues to grow with pace. It’s a story that UK pharmacists have followed closely, with wide debate about whether or not, what is a currently unlicensed product , should be part of pharmacy’s health offering. Today, Hon Lik, widely credited as the inventor of the e-cigarette, has joined forces with Fontem Ventures and his e-cigarette product, Puritane, is available in Boots.

He tells P3 that he expects to see ‘a number of fluctuations’ and a ‘reshuffle’ in terms of the worldwide market for e-cigarettes in the future. ‘The consumer will become more and more demanding, in terms of taste, safety and also the price for e-cigarettes,’ he predicts, suggesting that it will be larger players in the market that will be able to sustain the product development required to achieve these demands.

‘We should remember that e-cigarettes are a new product, facing a huge market with a long history of hundreds of years of smoking history,’ he says. ‘The population of smokers is around 1.3 billion people, so it is a huge market with immeasurable development prospects.’

Regulation debate

We ask about his views on regulation, from his dual perspectives as a pharmacist and inventor. Hon Lik would personally like to see a united standard for the e-cigarette market, but is concerned about regulation. He points out that traditional cigarettes are not regulated as medical products on the current market. ‘So if you are going to regulate e-cigarettes as a medicine or pharmaceutical product obviously this will create a very inconsistent policy.’ So, he would like to see a united standard without the inconsistency of regulation.

He believes that regulation would limit choice for customers, for what is, in his view, essentially a ‘leisure product’. He says about the potential impact of regulation: ‘It would actually prevent the consumers from having access to this alternative, which helps people reduce the cigarettes and eventually quitting the cigarettes. Which also reduces the choices for the consumer for potential enjoyment as a leisure product.’

The point is how we ensure the consumer has a good product and a safe product, he stresses. So measures should focus on removing ‘the old poorly produced e-cigarette and unsafe product’, he says, and to set up regulation more from a customer protection point of view, ‘to help e-cigarettes and any other healthy, enjoyable consumer products to be launched on the market potentially giving more choice to the consumer’.

As a pharmacist himself, he is also very interested in how e-cigarettes might be presented in community pharmacy. He does not feel that e-cigarettes should be promoted ‘for a sales purpose’. ‘Consumers should be given this time and trust to experiment and make their own choices - this product does not need the traditional pushing and sales and promotion way.’

Pharmacy teams that do stock e-cigarettes need to first understand the products themselves, and should take time with customers to describe the features and uses, and to recommend a ‘reasonable and responsible’ nicotine dosage that each consumer needs. ‘Are they a heavy smoker or are they just an occasional smoker? It’s about the dosage.’

The quest for quality

Mr Hon considers it the ‘ideal’ situation that some e-cigarette brands are now being marketed by large companies, including the tobacco companies. ‘They know the market very well; they know their consumers very well and they understand better and better about their needs,’ he says.

The tobacco companies have been operating in a market of 1.3 billion existing consumers [smokers] for a very long time, he points out, and have an existing infrastructure in terms of distribution channels. Capability for research and development is also very important, he says, in order to test
materials used to achieve products of increasing quality.

Lifestyle choices

Mr Hon is a smoker himself and says he understands the need of the consumer and also that the public is very aware of what kind of harm smoking could bring to them. ‘They understand that e-cigarettes as an alternative is a good thing because you still enjoy the nicotine without suffering from the other part of the cigarette. That is actually a choice we need to give to the consumer.’

Tobacco smokers are very much aware of the harm and are much more open than ever to alternatives, he suggests.

He recognises that there is enjoyment in nicotine and personally doesn’t believe that ‘there is much harm’ in regular use of nicotine. ‘It’s not only about quitting smoking, but it’s also about finding a safer way to share this enjoyment,’ he comments.

Mr Hon has an e-pipe, which he says he enjoys using. He also enjoys ‘that physical feeling of having a cigarette between his fingers’ and the social time spent with his colleagues doing so. He would ‘love to quit smoking’, he says, but because his work is in e-cigarette development, he needs to still smoke because he needs ‘to compare the taste of traditional cigarettes’ in terms of what type of mixer he is going to use as a raw material.

He and his team often smoke for a product development point of view to understand the taste and make comparisons. And he does confess that he still does that ‘a lot’, because he enjoys it.

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