"Vaping" a slow burner in China, world's maker of e-cigarettes

Wed Jan 15, 2014 4:11pm EST
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By Adam Jourdan

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - When Qu Liang's wife became pregnant, the 30-year-old Shanghai salesman switched from smoking to "vaping", a practice uncommon in China although it is the world's leading producer of electronic cigarettes.

E-cigarettes were invented about a decade ago by a Chinese medical researcher and the country supplies nearly all global demand. Puffing on the devices, or vaping, is surging worldwide, but it forms only a tiny part of China's 1.2 trillion yuan (about $200 billion) cigarette business.

Now, rising public awareness about the hazards of smoking, coupled with China's hardening stance on smoking in public, is opening up an opportunity for e-cigarettes to make inroads into the world's biggest tobacco market.

"As more and more places become off limits to smoking, I find myself using e-cigarettes more often," said Qu. Since starting using the product six years ago for health reasons, Qu has started selling e-cigarettes himself, expanding the business from exports to the domestic market this year.

E-cigarettes are mostly sold online in China, where government regulation around the product is still lax. Countries like Singapore and Brazil currently ban e-cigarettes.

Centered in the southern metropolis of Shenzhen, Chinese manufacturers including Shenzhen Smoore Technology, FirstUnion Group, Shenzhen Seego Technology Co Ltd and Ruyan Tech make around 95 percent of the world's e-cigarettes, slim, battery-powered metal tubes that turn nicotine-laced liquid into vapour that is inhaled.

Vaping is potentially a healthier alternative to smoking as the absence of combustion averts some of the harmful side-effects of tobacco smoke. But a big issue is the lack of long-term scientific evidence to support the safety and effectiveness of e-cigarettes, prompting critics like the British Medical Association to warn of the dangers of their unregulated use.

Nevertheless, the e-cigarettes market is growing fast, although it is still only a tiny proportion of the global tobacco business. Last weekend, Hollywood stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Julia Louis-Dreyfus were seen smoking e-cigarettes at the globally televised Golden Globes awards ceremony.   Continued...

Electronic cigarettes are pictured at a production line in a factory in Shenzhen, southern Chinese province of Guangdong January 15, 2014. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu