Patents for tobacco alternatives have been booming in recent times as tobacco companies position themselves as contributors to a smoke-free world, with a 9.1% year-on-year increase in patents related to vaping.
A total of 73,758 tobacco harm reduction patents were filed between 2010 and 2020, according to research commissioned by the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW) and carried out by UK-based intellectual property consultancy OxFirst.
The Patent Landscape Report reveals that most of the patents were for heated tobacco products (30,432, or 41% of the total), followed by e-cigarettes (26,540 or 36%) and the remaining 23% (16,786) for smokeless products.
The patents related to vaping products had a yearly increase of 9.1%, while those for heated tobacco technologies increased by 4.1% while there was just a 1.1% increase in patents for smokeless products.
Researcher Roya Ghafele said that compared to the number of patents that have been generated in the information and communication technology space these figures are “total peanuts”. “However, compared to the number of patents that the tobacco industry held or created before, this is tremendous. It is an interesting insight because it really shows you that the industry is innovating. They were given the choice to perish or innovate – they chose to innovate,” she said.
Where the applications come from
China accounts for nearly 27% of all patent publications, followed by the US at 24%, according to Ghafele.
Government-owned China National Tobacco has the most patents across the three categories, mainly focusing on heated tobacco technologies, targeting processing and preparation methods for tobacco. It’s followed by Philip Morris International (PMI), British American Tobacco (BAT) and Chinese e-cigarette company Kimree Technology.
The World Intellectual Property Organization has applied for 14% of patents for tobacco alternatives, followed by Japan (10%), Australia (6%), Republic of Korea (6%), the European Patent Office (5%), Canada (5%), Russia (1%) and Taiwan (1%).
Experts are divided over whether this positive trend will continue or whether it will fall away in coming years.
Riccardo Polosa of the University of Catania expects the rush to file patents to continue because “entrepreneurs are working hard and creatively to offer new alternatives to tobacco”. He concluded: “The trend will grow as this is the very essence of innovation. After decades of stagnation with products like cigarettes and chewable tobacco, it is refreshing to see an acceleration that will sooner or later make harmful products obsolete.”
Previous bids that came to nothing
However, Louise Ross, interim chair of the UK-based New Nicotine Alliance, told ECigIntelligence: “Hostility towards vaping and political pressure will have a negative impact on patents for tobacco alternatives. If I was a manufacturer, I’d be very risk-averse right now.”
The idea of an electronic cigarette is not new. Joseph Robinson of New York received a US patent for an “electric vaporizer” in 1930, though it never reached the market. Herbert Gilbert of Pennsylvania created the first device that was similar to the modern e-cigarette. He obtained a patent in 1965, but again the device never went into commercial production.
The first commercialised version of the e-cig – which relied on evaporation of nicotine – was invented in 1979. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that patents for tobacco alternatives began to boom, and products closely resembling modern e-cigarettes moved towards realisation.
The first commercially successful e-cig was created in Beijing in 2003 by pharmacist and inventor Hon Lik, a heavy smoker whose father had died of lung cancer. E-cigarettes were introduced to Europe and the United States in 2006. Patent requests for tobacco alternatives began to take off just a few years later.
What This Means: The 112-page OxFirst report suggests new technologies that deliver nicotine without combustion hold “the best hope” for smokers to quit. Over recent years, relevant patent applications have increased by 4% a year, but it is yet to be seen how this will evolve further
– Jennifer Freedman ECigIntelligence contributing writer
Image: US Patent Office