The dream of a no-combustion cigarette—one that wouldn’t produce deadly tar or obnoxious smoke—goes back to the eighties. In 1988, RJR Nabisco introduced its “smokeless” Premier. The company had spent an estimated $300 million developing the aluminum-tube device—which worked by heating tobacco without burning it—but early feedback was that it smells “like a fart” and “tastes like shit,” and the company pulled it from test markets in less than a year. In 1995, an entrepreneur named Pu Danming, operating as general manager of the China Healthy Cigarette Development Company, marketed a “cigarette” consisting of a perforated plastic tube, a mix of herbs that would scent the air being inhaled, a light on the end, and a patriotic tune powered by a suction-activated battery. And the first true electronic cigarette, as established in the folk history of vaping, also emerged in China. Invented by a Beijing pharmacist named Hon Lik, the Ruyan electronic cigarette appeared in 2004.
Soon, it became a commoditized, open-market product offered by Chinese factories. You could go online, choose the shape and flavor you wanted from a catalogue, e-mail a graphic file to brand it with your logo, set up a website to fulfill orders, and you were in business. There were maybe 200 online e-cig sellers. But the product they were selling barely registered with smokers.
This shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise. The allure of cigarettes is far more complex than merely the addictive power of nicotine. If it weren’t, so-called nicotine-replacement therapies—gum, the patch—and medications like Chantix would be more successful. Instead, despite a 2011 CDC report that roughly 70 percent of America’s 46 million smokers would like to quit, a 2012 Harvard study of nearly 800 Massachusetts smokers who had recently quit found that a quarter of them relapsed within two years. (As many as half of those also used NRTs.)
The lesson is that as much as cigarette smokers crave nicotine, they yearn for other things, too: the hand-to-mouth motion, the primordial pleasure of sucking on something, the organoleptic experiences of flavor and mouthfeel and “throat hit,” the visual cue of exhaled smoke, the ritual of ignition, the embattled/defiant camaraderie of the smoke break. These vital accoutrements of nicotine addiction were the promise of e-cigarettes, but early models had failed to deliver on it.
For a few years, NJOY wasn’t much different. Mark Weiss was an intellectual-property lawyer in Phoenix who had learned about e-cigarettes while traveling in China. Weiss’s father had been a patent attorney for IBM, and whenever Mark or any of his six siblings had an idea their father thought was good, he’d file for a patent for his child. The Weiss family was an entrepreneurial brood—four of five brothers became IP lawyers—and Mark thought electronic cigarettes were going to be big, so in 2006 he set up as Sottera, which sold off-the-rack e-cigarettes online under its brand NJOY.
The company’s revenues grew exponentially, but Sottera, and the industry itself, might have died soon after—in 2009, the FDA, arguing that e-cigarettes were an unapproved drug-delivery device, prevented shipments from entering the country. Treating electronic cigarettes as a smoking-cessation product or drug-delivery device would mean years of clinical trials, killing the industry before it was out of its infancy. Sottera had been careful never to make health claims for NJOY, and Mark’s brothers and law partners Jeff and Craig, who had some experience with bet-the-company litigation—they had started a hedge fund that traded on predicting outcomes of major patent lawsuits—joined a suit for an injunction against the FDA. Sottera won at trial and again on appeal, with two courts ruling that the FDA could only regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products under the Tobacco Control Act. Sottera had spent $2 million in legal fees, and Craig Weiss would soon take over as CEO. “This whole category might not exist if these guys happened to all be architects,” observes Andrew Beaver, NJOY’s chief marketing officer, who previously had the job at Russian Standard vodka.
From the beginning, it had been clear to the Weiss brothers that electronic cigarettes should closely resemble analog ones in order to make switching easy. In 2010, through a local business-leadership organization, Craig Weiss met Mark Scatterday, a product designer and serial entrepreneur who had invented the Gripp stress ball (more than 30 million units sold). Working informally for Weiss, Scatterday designed a disposable e-cig (purported to last as long as two packs) called the OneJoy, which became the market leader. “The guy’s like Jony Ive,” Weiss says. “That kind of level of genius.” But the OneJoy was oversize and remained a novelty. “It was the wrong product,” Weiss says. He told Scatterday, paraphrasing Steve Jobs, “We’re going to change the world. I need you,” and in 2011 Scatterday sold his company and joined NJOY full time. Scatterday’s next creation would prove to be NJOY’s real breakthrough.