LONDON - Electronic cigarette makers are racing to design and buy variations of a technology that has lit a billion-dollar boom, created a new vocabulary, and prompted a backlash from health officials worried about the impact of the new smokeless devices.
Research by Thomson Reuters shows that China - with over 300 million smokers - is the front runner in the manufacture and development of so-called e-cigarette technology, while new versions being patented include a "pay as you go" computer-assisted device and others that can deliver caffeine instead.
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 over 500 inventions, according to an analysis by the IP & Science business of Thomson Reuters. So far this year the total has reached 650. (A single invention may be covered by several patents.)
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 $3.5 billion. Both big tobacco firms and small entrepreneurs are falling over themselves to find new ways to "vape" - a verb suddenly so mainstream the Oxford English Dictionary named it 2014's Word of the Year.
Imperial Tobacco last year snapped up the patents owned by the company Hon co-founded in a deal worth $75 million, and is suing rivals for a range of alleged patent infringements.
Part of the rush to create new devices can be explained by the prospect of stiffer regulation on existing ones after the World Health Organisation said it wanted to see this, along with bans on indoor use, advertising and sales to minors.
While proponents see e-cigarettes as important tools for harm reduction, critics fear the devices may instead fuel a new wave of nicotine addiction and cite a lack of long-term scientific evidence to support their safety.
For a graphic showing the invention boom, click here: http://link.reuters.com/jyh53w