Vice Made Nice?

Photo: Timothy Archibald

For years, smokers have been hammered with the message—promulgated by antitobacco public health organizations and the pharmaceutical industry—that they must quit, or die. James Monsees and Adam Bowen believe there is another option. Cigarettes, they contend, are an extremely flawed delivery system for nicotine. The process of combustion releases all sorts of toxic, incidental chemicals and byproducts in addition to the target compound, which itself is a naturally occurring plant alkaloid similar to caffeine. Their answer: Radically reinvent the way people get their tobacco fix.

The idea came to them one night in 2004. With the deadline for their product design master's thesis proposals looming, Monsees, an art student, and Bowen, a mechanical engineering student, sensed their brainstorming session deteriorating. Stepping outside for a break, Bowen let Monsees bum a cigarette and they both lit up. Under the influence of nicotine and a fast-approaching dawn, the two contemplated the product at hand. The familiar white stick suddenly seemed arcane. Cigarette smoking is a foul-smelling, unhealthy habit that is widely shunned. Yet some 45.3 million people in the United States, more than 19 percent of the adult population, smoke. The pair realized the technology was overdue for an upgrade.

Many 2 a.m. breakthroughs dissipate in the harsher light of day. But for Bowen, MS '05, and Monsees, MFA '06, any second thoughts they may have had about pursuing the idea have long since been forgotten. "We had the conviction that we were going to do it no matter what," Bowen asserts, "and that actually kind of goes a long way."

Eight years later, the two have parlayed their thesis project into a scrappy start-up called Ploom, which they run out of a renovated industrial building in San Francisco's Dog Patch. Their flagship product, ambitiously dubbed the Model One, is a five-and-a-half-inch device made of sleek black plastic with a thin, whistle-like mouthpiece. Inside, a butane-fueled igniter gently heats finely ground, flavored tobacco contained in tiny aluminum pods. The vapor that is produced disappears almost instantly, leaving virtually no odor.

Research for the Model One began with a series of conversations. Monsees and Bowen approached smokers on campus and asked them what they loved and hated about their habit. Among the positives, the taste of tobacco was mentioned, albeit rarely, as was the social aspect of smoking with friends. The latter, however, was largely overshadowed by the stigma. The complaints were consistent: fear of being seen with a cigarette, frequent trips outside in the cold, and paranoia about smelling of smoke on a first date.

Convinced they could not only eliminate these negatives, but also build a more enjoyable experience around tobacco, the designers drew inspiration from hookahs and coffee pods. Their first prototypes were ad-hoc assemblies of bespoke components and items found on drugstore shelves. Lighters were cracked open and connected to small tobacco-filled chambers. Testing the contraptions often required a lengthy set of instructions, but enthusiastic beta testers weren't hard to come by at Stanford.

After graduation, however, it was another story. More than 50 venture capital firms and angel investors denied Ploom backing, citing vice clauses that precluded investments in alcohol, gambling or tobacco. "It's a frightening thing to take your nice shiny Stanford MBA or whatever and apply it to a space like tobacco, where you might not be as well viewed by your peers," admits Monsees. For his part, Bowen insists he was undaunted by the leap, "except for the kind of typical thoughts of evil Big Tobacco companies like coming down and squashing you."

"Which we spent a lot of time talking about," Monsees reminds him.

"Which was not really an issue," Bowen counters. "I mean, the industry has evolved."

To be sure, the past 15 years have seen expanded dialogue between tobacco companies and the FDA and public health groups. But decades of intractable conflict have left both sides wary. And not without good cause. In the late '60s, tobacco companies began marketing "light" and "low-tar" cigarettes, implying that they were safer when they knew the amount of harmful chemicals being inhaled by smokers was not significantly different than normal cigarettes. This debacle led the FDA to prohibit advertising alluding to the safety of tobacco products. The FDA's Center for Tobacco Products is developing a "modified risk" designation, but the process for meeting its requirements is still in its infancy.

The Ploom Model One device. It is a thin metallic tab with a cartridge at the top and a tube to inhale.Photo: Courtesy Ploom

For now, the Ploom Model One is categorized as a pipe tobacco product. Bowen and Monsees dutifully toe the line, staying mum on the issue of safety, while happily explaining the science. Burning tobacco activates nicotine, but it also transforms thousands of other chemicals—at least 60 of which are known to cause cancer—into gases. These, along with solid particulates, are inhaled as smoke. By using the slower, more controlled process of vaporization, Ploom's device heats tobacco to approximately 165 degrees Celsius. At that temperature, nicotine is released while other chemicals remain inert. And separating the fuel source from the tobacco chamber prevents byproducts from entering the air path.

While he can't speak directly to Ploom's technology, Joel Nitzkin, a public health physician who is a member of the Tobacco Control Task Force, agrees that smoking and nicotine have been conflated in the public's mind. "We're dealing with two separate problems which are present with cigarettes." The first are the chemicals that contribute to illness and death from heart and lung disease and cancer. But, says Nitzkin, "basically none of that is due to the nicotine." And while nicotine's addictive as well as cardiovascular effects do pose some risk, Nitzkin notes that cardiovascular stress is clinically negligible in otherwise healthy people. He estimates that smokeless tobacco products, i.e. chewing tobacco, snuff and e-cigarettes, pose "less than 1 percent the risk posed by cigarettes." If society's goal is to reduce harm from tobacco—as Nitzkin and a growing number of public health experts maintain it should be—then the next step is to inform current smokers of these alternatives and their benefits.

Ploom's main competitors in this space are the makers of e-cigarettes, electronic devices that approximate the look and feel of a cigarette. Some even employ propylene glycol, the chemical used for theatrical fog, to add heaviness to the vapor. Ploom's departure from the iconography and language of cigarettes is part of a strategy aimed at smokers who are conflicted by the stigma as much as the health risks. The slogan "This isn't smoke. This is Ploom," greets visitors to the website. Patrick Ng, a 35-year-old web content manager from San Jose, replaced his pack-a-day habit with five or six Ploom pods. The thimble-sized pods last five to ten minutes apiece and come in tobacco and tobacco-free blends with names like naked, rocket and kick-ass mint. Ng, who still smokes occasionally on nights out, experimented with e-cigarettes but found they "didn't feel as organic." He likes that Ploom is a local company and appreciates the variety of flavors.

For the moment, Monsees and Bowen are content with Ploom's local status and small base of a few thousand users. But that may soon change. In December they signed a limited partnership agreement with Japan Tobacco International, the world's third largest tobacco company. Now legitimate heirs to Big Tobacco's legacy, the entrepreneurs hope to help bring the industry into a new era. "Change is only going to happen from the inside in the tobacco industry," says Monsees. "And somebody's got to kind of step up to the plate to do this."

Allison Keeley is a freelance writer based in New York.