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Are E-Cigarettes The Most Impressive Innovation Of The Past Decade?

They have disrupted a centuries old industry and could save millions

7Apr

The past decade has seen some of the most impressive innovative ideas come to fruition, from the electric car through to the smartphone, there are thousands of devices that now exist which have changed the world forever. However, the spread of one product in particular may be the single most impressive innovation of the past decade: the electric cigarette.

Every year we see 6 million people die from smoking related illnesses, with smoking responsible for 1 billion deaths in the 21st century. Most people across the world realize the danger of smoking, but there has never been a viable alternative. Cessation products like gums, inhalers, and patches were poorly received and few worked well or were especially pleasant.

It is against this backdrop that the e-cigarette began to gain in prominence, as people became more health conscious and an increasing number of people wanted to stop smoking knowing the dangers that it posed. In the 1960s around 70% of the UK adult population smoked, which represents a huge issue for long-term healthcare, given that this also coincided with the peak of the baby boomer generation which is considerably larger than those above and below it. Despite the huge numbers of people smoking 30-40 years ago, 2016 represents the lowest number of smokers in the UK ever, with just 16.9% of adults classified as such.

One of the big factors behind this is e-cigarettes, which according to clinical studies increases a smoker’s chances of giving up by around 60% whilst being 95% less harmful according to Public Health England. The same organization also claimed that 2.5 million people tried to give up smoking in 2015 and over 1 million used e-cigarettes as their chosen cessation product. Of this 2.5 million, 20% succeeded in giving up, which is the best ever recorded result - it is unlikely that the increased use of e-cigarettes in this time was a coincidence.

It is why e-cigarettes could be considered to be the most impressive innovations of the past decade, not only because they may end up saving millions of people’s lives, but because they managed to solve a problem that has been around for hundreds of years. It has also been adopted incredibly quickly, with the invention of the modern e-cigarette being credited in 2003, meaning that in just 14 years it has revolutionized the tobacco industry.

The technology has been so disruptive that Goldman Sachs put the technology at the top of its ‘creative destroyers list’ above big data, 3D printing, and natural gas engines. It is not something that traditional cigarette companies are denying either, with André Calantzopoulos, chief executive of Philip Morris who own Marlboro, Benson & Hedges, and Rothmans, admitting as much when he said that he predicts ‘a phase-out period for cigarettes’ in the coming years. This comes as the company has been forced to look at smokeless alternatives with the headline on the most famous cigarette brand’s website currently ‘Designing a Smoke-Free Future’. There has also been significant investment in e-cigarettes from a raft of other companies, with practically every major tobacco company also investing significant sums in e-cigarette companies or smokeless alternatives.

A technology that has the potential to do so much good (although it is worth putting in a caveat that there has been no long-term clinical trials of the use of e-cigarettes), which has solved such a huge problem in the world, and which has completely disrupted the incumbents doesn’t come around too often. The speed of adoption of e-cigarettes alone is an indicator of their innovation success, but the fact that multi-billion dollar companies are now being forced to, at least publicly, rethink their centuries old business model is the true testament to the success of e-cigarettes as an innovative product. 

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