Mr. Vuleta and Mr. Weiss want to make “vaping,” as e-cigarette smoking is known in the industry, acceptable. Keith Richards might still be smoking tobacco, but in Mr. Vuleta’s vision, that grizzled guitarist’s gesture could inspire the audience, en masse, to pull out e-cigarettes. “The moment Keith Richards does it,” he said, “everyone else does, too.”
The E-Cigarette Industry, Waiting to Exhale
by MATT RICHTEL
Geoff Vuleta was in the crowd at a Rolling Stones concert last year when Keith Richards lit up a cigarette on stage, the arena’s no-smoking policy be damned. Feeling inspired, Mr. Vuleta, a longtime smoker, reached into his pocket and pulled one out himself. People seated nearby shot him scolding glances as he inhaled.
So he withdrew the cigarette from his mouth and pressed the glowing end to his cheek. His was an electronic cigarette, a look-alike that delivers nicotine without combusting tobacco and produces a vapor, not smoke.
Mr. Vuleta, 51, who has a sardonic humor, clearly relished recounting this story. He is the chief marketing officer for NJOY, an electronic cigarette company based in Scottsdale, Ariz., and it is his job to reframe how everyone, nonsmokers included, view the habit of inhaling from a thin stick and blowing out a visible cloud.
Mr. Vuleta, who told his tale in the office of Craig Weiss, the NJOY chief executive, calls this a process of “renormalizing,” so that smokers can come back in from the cold.
He means that literally — allowing people now exiled to the sidewalks back into buildings with e-cigarettes. But he also means it metaphorically. Early in the last century, smoking was an accepted alternative for men to chewing tobacco; for women, it was daring and transgressive.
Then, in midcentury, it became the norm. As the dangers of tobacco — and the scandalous behavior of tobacco companies in concealing those dangers — became impossible to ignore, smoking took on a new identity: societal evil.
Mr. Vuleta and Mr. Weiss want to make “vaping,” as e-cigarette smoking is known in the industry, acceptable.
Keith Richards might still be smoking tobacco, but in Mr. Vuleta’s vision, that grizzled guitarist’s gesture could inspire the audience, en masse, to pull out e-cigarettes.
“The moment Keith Richards does it,” he said, “everyone else does, too.”
Mr. Vuleta’s words are more exuberant than the official company line, which is that NJOY doesn’t want everyone to smoke e-cigarettes but only to convert the 40 million Americans who now smoke tobacco.
The customers NJOY attracts, and how it attracts them, are at the center of a new public health debate, not to mention a rush to control the e-cigarette business.
At stake is a vaping market that has grown in a few short years to around $1.7 billion in sales in the United States. That is tiny when compared to the nation’s $90 billion cigarette market. But one particularly bullish Wall Street analyst projects that consumption of e-cigarettes will outstrip regular ones in the next decade.
NJOY was one of the first companies to sell e-cigarettes; now there are 200 in the United States, most of them small. Just last year, however, Big Tobacco got into the game when Lorillard acquired Blu, an e-cigarette brand, and demonstrated its economic power. Within months, relying on Lorillard’s decades-old distribution channels, Blu displaced NJOY as the market leader.
Mr. Weiss still sees NJOY as having an advantage — in building e-cigarettes that look, feel and perform like the real thing. It’s a different strategy than that of competing products that look like long silver tubes or sleek, blinking fountain pens.
“We’re trying to do something very challenging: change a habit that is not only entrenched but one people are willing to take to their grave,” said Mr. Weiss, who is not a smoker but has tried both regular and e-cigarettes. “To accomplish that, we have to narrow as much as possible the bridge to familiarity. We have to make it easy for smokers to cross it.”
To some, though not all, in public health, that vision sounds ill-conceived, if not threatening. Among their concerns is that making smoking-like behavior O.K. again will undo decades of work demonizing smoking itself.
Far from leading to more smoking cessation, they argue, e-cigarettes will ultimately revive it, and abet new cases of emphysema, heart disease and lung cancer.
“The very thing that could make them effective is also their greatest danger,” said Dr. Tim McAfee, director of Office on Smoking and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We’re at this incredible inflection point in history,” he said, adding that the company has a chance to “make the single most beneficial impact on society in this century.”
Over dinner at Federal Pizza, a trendy place in Phoenix owned by a close friend, Mr. Weiss put a Camel Crush cigarette onto a table beside an NJOY King. “These are almost identical,” he says, “but we still have a ways to go.”
The two sticks on the table were roughly the same size. But NJOY’s weighs around 5 grams, more than twice as much as the Camel. When squeezed, the NJOY isn’t as spongy, and it lacks the Camel’s fragrance (though a nimbus of tobacco bouquet emerges when you open the pack). The tip is plastic with an LED glow, not real fire, and it produces no ash.
These distinctions can mean everything to heavy smokers for whom each detail in the smoking ritual — a “moment in the day,” as Mr. Vuleta summarizes the experience of each cigarette — adds up to something exquisite.
“Smokers talk about a ‘throat hit,’ ” Mr. Weiss explained as he sipped a strawberry wine cooler over pizza, referring to a tickle or slight burn at the back of the throat, a part of the overall Pavlovian experience that comes before the nicotine rush.
It’s something, he said, that the company’s products are becoming better at imitating, along with changing the chemistry inside the e-cigarette so that nicotine is absorbed more quickly by the body, more like the real thing. But it is not there yet.
Blu eCigs, NJOY’s biggest competition, are slender black tubes, with tips that glow blue, not ember-red. Murray S. Kessler, the C.E.O. of Lorillard, which sells Blu, described the look as “edgy” and “cool” and said that, with such a look, there is a better chance to make it a “complete replacement” to the cigarette.
“I don’t want to emulate a cigarette,” Mr. Kessler said. “The big idea isn’t to try to keep people in cigarettes, but to normalize smoking e-cigarettes and vaping as the next generation.”
E-cigarettes that look different, he said, could “solve the social stigma issue” and erase the tension of smoking in public places.
At the same time, he conceded that his strategy “creates some confusion” that “is not irrational to me, and just requires education.”
“People say, if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck.”
Mr. Weiss’s challenge, if he’s to reach what he envisions as a place in history, will be to prove that looks can be deceiving.