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Who’s Killing the Electronic Cigarette?

It’s a battery-powered, highly disruptive technology that is reinventing a daily activity upon which millions rely. But a confluence of poor regulation, entrenched corporate interest, and a semi-ambivalent consumer base might prevent it from reaching its full potential. Of course I’m talking about the electric car but you’d be forgiven if e-cigs came to mind. The parallel story lines of e-cigs and e-cars are hard to ignore. Indeed, examining the story of how the electric car went from a tree hugger’s pipe dream to a Wall Street darling shows us the challenges ahead for the vaping industry.

The 2006 documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” tells the story of the EV1, an electric vehicle that GM marketed in California during the mid-nineties. But by 2003, GM cancelled all leases and crushed the EV1s like old beer cans. Why? Because car companies were selling gas-guzzling SUV’s like hot cakes and gas was still under $1.50 per gallon. So no one, not consumers, oil companies, regulators, or auto manufacturers, were really interested in the car of the future when the present was so sweet. And though some consumers showed interest in the battery-powered cars, others were dissuaded by the limited 100 mile range of the strange looking vehicle.

Today of course, the conversation around electric cars is much different. Tesla, the electric car company founded by business magnate Elon Musk, is grabbing headlines for its meteoric stock price and customer ratings. As well, Nissan and GM have sold thousands of electric vehicles.

So what happened between the demise of e-car 1.0 and today?

Well for starters, the world changed dramatically. The second gulf war and catastrophic weather events forced the American public to make the connection between our addiction to oil, national security, and global warming.  As well, the recession of 2008 exposed the flaw in the business models of American car companies; namely the assumption that gas would be cheap forever.

But more importantly, battery technology was given time to develop. Because of the increased availability of power, the Model S, Tesla’s luxury sedan, distinguishes itself from the previous generation of electric cars in that it equals or betters most gas-powered cars in its class in terms of performance and luxury.

Vaping products on the market today are much like the EV1 in that they are “ultra-low emission” but they still require consumers to sacrifice short-term satisfaction for long-term benefit. As the case of the electric car shows, many consumers cannot compromise. Less satisfaction has lead to lack-luster customer retention and mixed results from studies on the effectiveness of e-cigs as a smoking sensation device. E-cig makers will need time and a focus on innovation to develop a product that is better than the analog cigarette on all fronts. A better product would also convince critics that e-cigs aren’t a bridge to analog cigarettes but a viable reduced-harm substitute.

As well, e-cig makers will need the cooperation of regulators. At the very least they will need FDA regulation that allows for technology innovation and the introduction of new products. Thus far, the FDA has not had a good track record of evaluating and approving new tobacco products in a timely manner so this is an area of concern.

Fortunately, we won’t need any protracted wars or natural disasters to convince tobacco companies, e-cig brands, and smokers that the time is right for e-cigarettes. Tobacco use in this country is in decline, most smokers want to quit, and smoking is the number one cause of preventable death. So we get it. All that’s needed now is more convincing product and the latitude to build it.