China sets the pace in global race to develop e-cigarette technology

Domination of development of the latest tobacco business fits well with authorities' eagerness to see 'Designed in China' labels

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 November, 2014, 4:32am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 November, 2014, 6:17am

Makers of electronic cigarettes are racing to design and buy variations of a technology triggering a billion-dollar boom and prompted a backlash from health officials worried by the impact of the smokeless devices.

China, with more than 300 million smokers, is the front runner in the development of e-cigarette technology, while versions being patented include a "pay as you go" computer-aided device and others that deliver caffeine.

In 2005 just eight e-cigarette inventions were described in published patents. By 2012 the figure had jumped to 220 and by last year there were 500 inventions, according to an analysis by the IP & Science business of Thomson Reuters. So far this year the total has reached 650.

The original technology, involving battery-powered heating systems that vaporise nicotine-laced liquid, is credited to Hon Lik, a Chinese medical researcher with a 20-a-day habit, in 2003.

His invention has since become so popular that the market is now estimated to be worth US$3.5 billion. Both big tobacco firms and small entrepreneurs are racing to find new ways to "vape", which is a verb suddenly so mainstream the Oxford English Dictionary named it the 2014 Word of the Year.

Imperial Tobacco last year snapped up the patents owned by the company Hon co-founded in a deal worth US$75 million, and is suing rivals for alleged patent infringements.

Part of the rush can be explained by the prospect of stiffer regulation on e-cigarettes after the World Health Organisation said it wanted to see this, along with bans on indoor use, advertising and sales to minors.

Of more than 2,000 e-cigarette inventions tracked by Thomson Reuters, 64 per cent originate in China, where over half of men smoke. In second place is the United States, with 14 per cent, followed by South Korea with 9 per cent.

Some patented suggestions target smokers looking to regulate their nicotine intake and spending. While offerings already on the market include thousands of e-liquid flavours from menthol to marshmallow, and even a smartphone app to show how much you are using, new patents go a step further.

Tobacco giant Philip Morris International describes an e-cigarette that would allow users to "pay as you go" by buying a certain number of doses via computer application connected to an e-cigarette. Customers could also programme the device to shut off after a certain number of puffs to limit intake.

Other smaller players aim to deliver caffeine and other additives instead of nicotine.

China's domination of the market reflects not only its huge number of smokers but also a wider drive by the government to forge a knowledge economy. By maximising patents it hopes to replace the ubiquitous "Made in China" label by "Designed in China".

Since 2011, China has been the world’s top patent filer for all inventions, according to the World Intellectual Property Office.

"Patenting globally is rising significantly year on year, driven by Chinese patenting generally," said Bob Stembridge, senior patent analyst at Thomson Reuters IP & Science.

"But I would say the e-cigarette field is growing faster than the general trend, and the bias toward China is greater than in global patenting."