Look at this E-cig and tell me what you see...

Blogger’s note - I started writing this as a conclusion to the upcoming Roebling Research report, “Churn in the E-Cigarette Market” but realized that it would probably work better as a blog piece. The results discussed are based on a survey of 361 adult smokers who have purchased at least one e-cigarette.

When I was looking at some survey results from new e-cigarette users, I came upon a surprising result. According to the survey, the number one motivation for adult smokers to try e-cigs (33% of respondents in fact) was to quit smoking. That’s not the surprise. The surprising result was that the number two motivation was curiosity. With all the other tangible benefits that e-cigarettes can provide like saving money or getting your nicotine dose indoors or not smelling like an ask tray, that most basic inborn impulse to explore the unknown trumps them all as a motivator.

But then, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. This curiosity is in part a result of the confusion surrounding e-cigarettes. After all, how do you make sense of a product that is designed to look and feel like a cigarette but can help eliminate the health risk factors associated with smoking? What do you make of a product that is sold in convenience stores, competes with pharmaceuticals, and has the disruptive force of an Apple gadget? How should the mainstream regard an industry that’s a mix of mom-and-pop shops, little-known brands, and big tobacco companies?

E-cigarettes are like a Rorschach ink blot test. Not only does everyone see something different, they are projecting their own issues onto them. Tobacco companies see a threat to their business and the future of it. E-cig entrepreneurs see an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of something big. Veterans of the tobacco wars see a new foe or perhaps an old foe in new clothes. Resistance from lawmakers and suspicion from health-advocacy groups is a knee-jerk reaction born from fighting these wars. Though the veterans’ reactions may or may not be warranted, they are predictable and to some degree, understandable.

Vapers see e-cigarettes in a number of ways but the biggest chunk see a device that may help them quit smoking. This group skews older, mostly over 30. If they are like average smokers, they smoke about a pack a day and want to eliminate the harmful habit from their lives. When supporters of e-cigarettes say that it is the “lesser of two evils”, this is the group they have in mind. E-cigarette use for this group is the easy sell.

The high hurdle for widespread acceptance is getting approval for use by this second chunk, the “curious” group. 26% of respondents who tried e-cigarettes fell into this group and it skews young; 69% are between the ages of 18 and 29. When detractors talk about the potential risks e-cigarettes pose to society, they are largely talking about this curious segment of adult vapers and, in addition, minors who might also be experimenting with e-cigs.

This segment has no particular goals when it comes to their e-cigarette use (e.g. quitting smoking). If e-cigarettes are their Pandora’s Box, the question is, what will they find when they open it? They might find a quality product that is as safe as a cup of coffee. Or they might find an addiction to a poorly made class of devices with unknown, untraceable, or potentially harmful components. Or worse yet, they might find a gateway back to traditional cigarettes.

The outcomes for this group will largely determine what most see when they consider this product. The most equitable situation for the industry would be for those who are determining its structure, namely e-cig brands, tobacco companies, law makers, regulators, retailers, health-advocacy groups, etc. to work to ensure quality products, to quantify and minimize risk, to prohibit purchase by minors, and to create regulation that allows for industry growth and positive health outcomes. Taking these measures would clear up some of the confusion around these devices and create a viable path to enable what could be the safest era of nicotine use in history. Industry participants have to act with urgency though, because the same study shows that this group is the highly likely to quit vaping, presumably to revert to smoking much more harmful cigarettes.