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In the early 2000s, Hon Lik’s father, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Hon, a pharmacist by training living in Shenyang, China, had a tobacco dependency of his own. That fact, along with the sobering news, spurred him to invent the device that became the precursor of most of today’s e-cigarettes.

Hon believed that “aerosolizing” nicotine, infusing it in a vapor rather than delivering it through smoke from tobacco, could help addicts sustain their habit without risking their life from exposure to tar and toxic chemicals. [...]