e-Cigarette fires seem to be a weekly fixture in the news cycle these days. It has all the things the media looks for in a news story: A somewhat strange product, hidden danger and tragedy befalling the unexpected. These stories are also popping up at the worst possible time with e-cigarettes being up against the ropes and in the crosshairs of powerful politicians.
Of course these are terrible incidents that have the potential to be deadly. And of course I understand some basic things about e-cigarette fires. Lithium batteries are notoriously unstable. There are far fewer e-cigarette fires than fires caused by smoking. The reason there are more e-cigarette failure stories out there is because there are more e-cigarettes out there thanks to the industry unprecedented growth.
I also know a few of other things. First, the potential for catastrophic failure needs to be mitigated as much as possible to prevent future injury. Second, even though there are explanations for many of the fires, this is very much a situation where the industry needs to manage the public perception as much as possible. Finally, if left unchecked by the industry, someone else will step in to regulate this stuff, and there’s enough regulatory risk to kill most of the industry floating around out there, we don’t need more.
With that in mind, I’ve come up with five things that need to happen sooner rather than later to help head off this problem before it becomes a full-blown crisis. I’m sure you have ideas too. Let’s hear them in the comments section!
1. Stop Whistling Past the Graveyard
The more news stories that come out about e-cigarette fires, the less item number one is even possible. However, more often than not I see people connected to the industry pointing out that when looked at compared to the number of e-cigarettes, accidents are very rare. True enough. But as I mentioned earlier, this is about perception as much as it is about protecting consumers.
One incident is too many. The goal should be zero, not one tenth of a percent or whatever that number is.
This is a real problem and it needs to be addressed.
2. It’s NOT the User’s Fault
This second thing seems to be more prevalent than pretending e-cigarette fires aren’t happening. Whenever these stories break, it seems that parts of the community immediately assume the user did something wrong. Used the wrong charger, used a USB port on a computer instead of an AC adapter, left the battery charging unattended.
I’m not saying all of the above things aren’t good advice. They certainly are. But, by now we’ve seen enough cases where the users were doing the right things and something still went wrong. Even in cases where someone did something wrong, is it still really their fault?
No it is not.
Perhaps a couple years ago, it was pretty common to expect e-cigarette users to go hunt down information in forums or sites like this one. But e-cigarettes have long since transcended the curious niche and have now become a consumer device just like a mobile phone.
The common expectation is that you plug your phone into any old USB port and it will charge in some manner or another. There’s no need to babysit an iPhone while it charges. That’s the expectation consumers have for electronics, and it’s the same expectation they have for other stuff like e-cigarettes.
It is unreasonable to think that someone who goes and picks up a simple kit at one of the many gas stations or e-cigarette stores that now dot the countryside should need to take a basic electrical engineering course to use a $50 bit of hardware.
3. Design Review
Simply put, we need to figure out why the hell this is happening.
There are some theories floating around. One popular one that seems likely is that either the battery or chargers lack circuitry to detect a charged battery and shut off properly. Other possibilities are chargers that can’t properly handle the voltage coming from the USB port.
Whatever issue it is, engineering resources need to be thrown at it to try to determine the most likely causes and ways to remediate them. Protection circuitry in both battery in charger might be one way. Heck, maybe it even comes down to the need to ditch the USB standard for charging and switch to something that has a constant and known power output.
However, there’s no way to tell if those solutions will work until people smarter than me can dig into the issue, preferably with the manufacturers’ engineers.
4. Industry Cooperation
Let’s face it. On the actual business side of things, the e-cigarette industry is a complete and utter train wreck. There are at least three industry groups in the US that seem to be actively competing against one another. Each one has a different mission and motivation.
In some cases they actively hate one another. That needs to stop, at least for this one issue. Left unchecked, this issue can impact the bottom line, no matter which tribe a company may be in bed with.
Now is not the time to boast how your members are held to a higher standard or other rhetoric. Cut the bullshit. Put your collective resources together before this problem buries industry with regulations only Big Tobacco could love.
5. Pressure Vendors
Ok, so items 3 and 4 are great and all, but let’s face it, e-cigarette companies might need a nudge in the right direction to get the ball rolling. That’s where we as educated consumers come in. We need to demand better of our favorite sellers.
We need to lean on them so they lean on their distributors and manufacturers to make sure everyone is doing the right thing. If they don’t do the right thing, perhaps a merchant willing to do what’s right is more worthy of your hard-earned disposable income.
A lot of this comes from cost cutting. Some merchants do that to make things cheaper for you. Others do it to increase the profit margins. So the cold reality is that it could result in price increases in the hardware to ensure safer products.
However, that would be a drop in the bucket should stringent requirements are brought down on the industry. Then there’ll only be a handful of companies that can afford to sell e-cigarettes. You can bet they won’t keep prices cheap when that happens.
What this problem needs are creative solutions. So, what do you think? Let’s hear your comments.