Electronic cigarettes are one of the most hyped products of recent years, but behind the plumes of vapour, growth in the market is losing pace as users search for quicker and better ways to gain their nicotine hit.
The slowdown has paved the way for big tobacco companies to develop novel and alternative products that more closely mimic the experience of normal cigarettes.
British American Tobacco, the world’s second-biggest cigarette maker with brands such as Dunhill and Lucky Strike, already sells a conventional ecigarette called Vype.
But it is also backing the Voke Inhaler, which does not need heat, electronics or batteries to operate and is therefore not officially classified as an ecigarette. The device, which has been licensed in the UK as a medicinal product but is awaiting further approval for the commercial version, is shaped like a cigarette but delivers nicotine via an aerosol spray.
“Nicotine delivery is key. Users need to feel the nicotine hit in a puff,” says Alex Hearn, who invented the Voke Inhaler.
Kind Consumer, the company behind Voke, has attracted high-profile investors including private equity veteran Jon Moulton, former J Sainsbury chairman Sir Peter Davis and Sir Terry Leahy, the former Tesco boss.
Sir Terry says that with global research casting doubt on the safety of ecigarettes, having medical approval for the inhaler is a key advantage over other cigarette alternatives. “There’s less room for people to criticise and consumers do value a medically regulated product,” he says.
Other tobacco companies are also developing products that heat tobacco instead of burning it, which they say reduces the risk from cigarettes while more closely matching the smoking experience — an approach initially tried by the industry in the 1980s.
Philip Morris International, the world’s biggest tobacco company, started to defend its turf in the fast-growing market last year by snapping up Nicocigs, one of the UK’s fastest-growing electronic cigarette makers, and launching the iQos, a pen-like device that heats specially prepared Marlboro-branded cigarettes called HeatSticks.
“Smokers are looking for alternatives to cigarettes that offer reduced risk potential, and today’s offerings aren’t fully meeting their expectations,” says the company, which has invested $2bn developing alternatives to cigarettes.
Although the iQos product is currently only on sale in Italy and Japan, PMI has said it could make $700m of profit a year if it can reach a target of selling 30bn HeatSticks and is ramping up capacity with a new factory in Italy.
The device provides an “experience much closer to smoking a cigarette” when it comes to the speed of nicotine intake, “which appears to be the key driver of satisfaction”, according to Erik Bloomquist, an analyst at Berenberg.
Japan Tobacco International, which acquired ecigarette brand E-Lites last year, has also invested in products that heat instead of burning tobacco and in June rolled out its Ploom device in the UK.
But despite the wide range of ecigarette brands, no single product has yet succeeded in capturing the imagination of ecigarette users, according to Shane Macguill, a tobacco analyst at Euromonitor.
In the US, the world’s largest ecigarette market, Lorillard’s Blu is the leading brand and competes against Reynolds American’s Vuse and Altria’s MarkTen ecigarettes. Imperial, which this week launched a new ecigarette in France, is set to acquire the Blu brand if Lorillard’s merger with Reynolds is approved by US regulators this spring.
“There is no single ecigarette product or brand that is really commanding the attention of consumers,” says Mr Macguill. That may explain why sales of ecigarettes are stagnating. Although they rose 50 per cent to 17.2m units in the UK last year, the bulk of that increase occurred in the first quarter of 2014.
Despite a seasonal uplift in December and January sales, “driven by Christmas gifting and the January quitters”, sales have been broadly flat since April, mirroring a slowdown of sales in the US, according to the consumer research group Nielsen.
“Probably most people who will have wanted to try ecigarettes will have tried them by now,” says Natasha Kendall, an analyst at Nielsen. She says vapers are increasingly buying from specialised vape shops and websites, which Nielsen does not track, where they have more choice than in supermarkets.
The “holy grail” for the industry, says Jan Verleur, who runs VMR Products, the largest online seller of ecigarette products in the world, is making a device that gets nicotine into the blood just as quickly as normal cigarettes.
He says that even customisable vaporisers bought online or in specialised vape shops, whose sales have overtaken the ecigarettes commonly found in supermarkets, will not win over the vast majority of smokers.
“Right now, as the technology stands, at best you could get 15 to 20 per cent of the customer base to transition over,” he says.
According to the Smoking in England survey, that point may have already been reached with the proportion of smokers and ex-smokers who say they use ecigarettes stagnating at around 20 per cent since mid 2013.
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