The whole concept of an electronic cigarette dates back at least to 1963, when Herbert Gilbert filed for and was later granted U.S. Patent No. 3,200,819, described the device as ‘a smokeless nontobacco cigarette’ that was intended ‘to provide a safe and harmless means for and method of smoking by replacing burning tobacco and paper with heated, moist, flavored air.’ Despite all of the inventor’s efforts, Gilbert’s device was never produced.
Other similar attempts to develop a smokeless cigarette also stumbled. For example, Advanced Tobacco Products’ ‘Favor’ cigarette failed in the 1970s due to technical and regulatory difficulties. The company did, however, leave as a legacy the term ‘vaping,’ a verb now used to refer to the use of e-cigarettes. Additional efforts in the 1980s failed as customers were not satisfied with the taste and smell.
However, Hon Lik, a Chinese pharmacist who wanted to kick the hazardous habit that killed his father from lung cancer, invented the e-cigarette as we know it today. His company Ruyan Group began selling the devices in China in 2004. The early versions used an ultrasonic piezoelectric element to vaporize a liquid containing nicotine and propylene glycol. Later devices replaced the ultrasonic component with a simpler heating element called an atomizer to create the vapor. But only after reaching markets like Europe and the US, the device gained a lot of popularity and soon turned into a market with $2 billion in global sales.
Hon filed his first ecig patent application in China in 2004 and obtained it also in the United States back in 2010. Soon after obtaining patents in the U.S., Hon’s company, Ruyan, filed a series of lawsuits in 2011 and 2012 against a number of electronic cigarette makers, claiming their products infringed the original patents. These suits resulted in a number of default judgments against certain defendants and prompted settlements with others.
However, in 2013, Fontem Ventures, a wholly owned subsidiary of Imperial Tobacco, purchased Ruyan’s e-cigarette unit in a $75 million deal, which also included the purchase of the company’s portfolio of patents on ecig technologies. Shortly after, the company filed lawsuits in March 2014 against 11 ecig manufacturers, claiming infringement of four of its newly purchased patents. Among the defendants are the makers of the NJOY, Blu and Logic.
To give you a clear idea, there are over 90 issued patents and hundreds of published patent applications related to electronic cigarettes in the United States. alone. Between the holders of these patents and applications are companies such as Fontem, Reynolds, NJOY and Altria. The exponential expansion of the e-cigarette industry is accompanied by the constant filing of new patent applications. The nearly 100 applications filed in each of the last two years shades the single-digit numbers of applications filed in the years prior to 2010. These applications are directed to numerous variations on ecig vaporizers, as well as component parts, refill devices, chargers, cases, and means of adding aromas, flavors and even vitamins to the inhaled vapor.