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Hon Lik, a pharmacist from north-eastern China’s Shenyang, invented the e-cigarette as a way to quit his heavy smoking after the habit killed his father. However, the pharmacist hasn’t managed to quit — instead he now smokes both e-cigarettes and regular cigarettes, though he smokes only tobacco as he has to make sure the flavor of his devices is right. Before his e-cigarettes became popular, Hon’s efforts were focused on making it simpler for patients to take traditional Chinese remedies like ginseng or deer antler.

He had taken out patents on pills before he came up with the idea of patenting e-cigarettes in the world’s most lucrative market — not China (there still isn’t much interest in e-cigarettes there) but in the US. In China, Hon isn’t a celebrity, nor is he particularly rich. He says he lives in an average house and did not buy the car, a Volvo SUV, that he drives. He had already been successful through his work for a very niche, small scale company that he worked for before he developed the e-cigarette. He and his family were fairly well rewarded, and they don’t have to work much anymore. The car is, in fact, owned by Fontem Ventures, the Dutch subsidiary of UK firm Imperial Tobacco.

Fontem spent $75 million to buy Hon’s patents in 2013 — specifically, it purchased the patents from a Hong Kong company called Dragonite which Hon established many years earlier along with a Chinese investor. While Hon only received a tiny fraction of the $75 million, he is now employed by Fontem as a consultant. The company flies him around the globe to discuss the e-cigarette’s birth. Hon invented the e-cigarette in order to quit smoking, and he speaks of a global social problem which he thinks he can help the world solve.

While many think big tobacco wants to use the e-cigarette to re-normalize smoking, Hon feels differently, noting that in his view the e-cigarette is an alternative to cigarette smoking. At the moment many e-cigarettes and related devices like the shisha pen are sold over the Internet, but Hon is hopeful they will make more inroads into shops. He believes using existing distribution channels like tobacconists will make it easier for consumers to buy the devices. On the subject of municipalities banning or contemplating banning ‘vaping’ — the practice of smoking e-cigarettes — in public places, he feels the moves are “fear driven” and probably based on “over-concern.”

Hon observes that across US and the UK, consensus has started to solidify that non-smokers don’t start using the devices and those who switch to e-cigarettes usually don’t go back to regular tobacco. To understand the e-cigarette’s social usefulness, Hon tells a story from Chinese folklore. Thousands of years ago, so the story goes, a man now seen as a hero looked at a large area where floods were costing many people their lives and homes. The man’s name was Daya. Daya didn’t build dykes in order to hold the water back. Instead, he used channels and pumps to let the water go where it would be useful. By recognizing the real risks and changing the normal way of thinking, Daya set China on the course to becoming a rich agricultural nation.