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Smoke Without Fire

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Scatterday set out to replicate the smoking experience. Partly this meant boring in on the consumer process—making something you’d buy at a convenience store, peel off the wrapping, lift a lid, remove a cigarette, and throw away when done. NJOY hired a master flavorist who’d spent his career in the tobacco industry and, using Marlboro as a model, tweaked the formula to get both the flavor and the nicotine sensation just so. Scatterday isn’t a smoker, but he’d give guinea-pig smokers three prototypes with different nicotine levels, or flavors, and use their comments to refine the recipe. In the process, he received some helpful, not entirely intuitive feedback: It turned out that maximizing the volume of vapor was surprisingly important to smokers. “More is better, bigger is better; it’s more of that wow factor,” Scatterday says. “To see people’s faces and reactions when this big plume of vapor is coming out, we knew we were getting close.”

It was Scatterday’s job to figure out how to achieve the plume most efficiently, battery-wise, while designing a physical object that matched the dimensions of a conventional cigarette and was, if not as light, at least much lighter than other e-cigarettes. Scatterday’s new model came wrapped in the familiar paper and had a slightly squishy “filter” (actually the section containing the nicotine solution). And unlike other electronic cigarettes, which glowed only at the end, where others could see the light but the smoker received “no visual satisfaction,” Scatterday’s King featured an ash-resembling tip that glowed slightly down the sides as well. “It was important to smokers,” Scatterday says, “that sensation that something’s happening, it’s working.” The new NJOY King was a disposable $7.99 e-cigarette in a satisfyingly click-y case, with packaging in colors cunningly evocative of the red, gold, and green used by Marlboro. It wouldn’t come in flavors. Like the OneJoy, it would be touted as lasting the equivalent of two packs. There was nothing else like the King on the market, and after the initially surly man tried it at last summer’s focus group, he gave it the highest possible rating, saying he was “definitely going to buy this.”

The focus-group responses were across the board more consistently favorable than any NJOY’s private-equity investors had ever seen. That day, as Craig Weiss started to do the math in his head, he couldn’t help feeling giddy: If 46 million Americans spend $90 billion a year on cigarettes, and just one percent of them could be captured by NJOY, that would mean $900 million in annual revenue. But here, 100 percent of respondents were saying that they were, as Weiss recalls, “likely or definitely going to buy our product.” Weiss walked up behind NJOY’s executive chairman, Elie Wurtman, placed his hands on his shoulders, and whispered jocularly into his ear: “We’re going to be rich.”

In December, when NJOY held a launch party for Kings at the Jane Hotel, in the West Village, guests encountered the shock of the old. For likely the first time since 2003, when Mayor Bloomberg banned smoking in bars and restaurants, a Manhattan barroom was full of people with little white sticks in their mouths and tendrils of vapor rising above the crowd. “It was the most extraordinary back-to-the-future moment,” says Geoff Vuleta, a product-innovation consultant who advises NJOY. “The entire room was smoking. It was like being back in the seventies. It looked like what 2020 will look like.”

Back in 2013, NJOY has a tricky marketing equation to balance. E-cigarettes have few constituent chemicals (mainly nicotine plus propylene glycol, which is commonly found in cough medicine), unlike the thousands present in tobacco and multiplied when it’s combusted, and they don’t produce secondhand smoke. The scientific consensus, so far, boils down to “these are a lot safer than regular cigarettes,” says Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health. But the likely healthier-ness of e-cigarettes, which could be a huge selling point, is the one thing NJOY and its competitors can’t talk about, since making health claims would justify an FDA crackdown. The company routinely deletes any health-related product testimonials (“NJOY helped me quit”) posted on the company’s Facebook page.

While NJOY does hope eventually to be able to make health claims—an industry grail that would turbocharge sales—the prohibition against doing so might have a paradoxical benefit. Explicit marketing of electronic cigarettes as a healthy choice could strip cigarettes of their sheen of romantic ruin once and for all.

Electronic cigarettes are “inoffensive” and “safer,” Hamilton Nolan wrote derogatorily on Gawker last year, in a post titled “Electronic Cigarettes Will Never Be Cool.” Where conventional cigarettes conveyed a seductive sense of danger, Nolan suggested, e-cigarettes communicate, “ ‘I can’t decide whether to stop or not.’ Nobody wants to fuck a wishy-washy school crossing guard.”


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