Co.Design

Ploom Pax Could Be The IPod Of Tobacco. But Marketing It Is A Battle

The Ploom Pax may be the iPod of vaporizers, but how do you sell a product that’s so hard to fund and market?

It’s built of anodized aluminum and fits right in your palm. It features no physical buttons, yet is easy enough for your mother to use. A magnetic latch makes the trickiest mechanism a snap. And of course, it comes in three colors.

It’s not the latest iPod. It’s the Pax, a $250 electronic cigarette replacement from a young company called Ploom. Out in August of this year, the Pax accepts any loose leaf tobacco (or recreational herb), and within 30 seconds, transforms it into a puffable, smokeless vapor.

Sparked in 2004 by a pair of Stanford students as a graduate project, Ploom released their first e-cigarette a few years later. To this day, their modelOne has just a few thousand loyal users worldwide—a number easily tracked through the purchase of its proprietary tobacco pods—but Ploom has never called it more than a "beta" product. (And they, themselves, call their tiny operation a skunkworks project.)

The Pax is their swing-for-the-fences product, one that Ploom hopes to distribute to almost every country in the world with the help of the third largest tobacco company in the world, Japan Tobacco International, who recently purchased a minority stake in the company.

You see, despite health warnings and regulation, tobacco use is growing worldwide. It’s a $600 billion market, "but in that large of a space, there are very few options in tobacco," Ploom co-founder James Monsees points out. Pre-rolled cigarettes, chew, and loose smoking tobacco don’t begin to compare to the myriad of options offered by other large markets, from cell phones to household cleaners.

Within tobacco, the e-cigarette niche is a strange one. Its earliest days were actually driven by investment from the Chinese government (the tobacco industry is state-owned in China, and the country houses 350 million smokers), who no doubt hoped its rising, tobacco-craving population could be weaned to less-pollutant (arguably healthier) vapor. And maybe as a result, most e-cigarettes are silly facsimiles, toy-looking tobacco products that glow with fake embers when you inhale. "It’s a very literal interpretation that I think is far from a real tobacco experience," explains Monsees. "We don’t think that’s the way to go."

To Ploom, there are two big unsatisfied groups in the tobacco community who’d be potential customers for a designer smoking experience. The first is what they call the "sometimes smoker," that person who doesn’t usually buy cigarettes, but always bums them at bars. And the second is the "conflicted smoker," the smoker who feels ostracized for their habit but isn’t changing it.

"There’s no excited smoker?" I ask. "There are some. But at least in California, that subset’s diminishing," Monsees laughs.

Their approach makes sense on paper: Don’t copy the silly fake cigarettes. Make a premium electronic device—a lustable gadget—for people who want a cigarette but don’t necessarily want to be associated with cigarettes. "Cigarettes have been around for a very, very long time. They’re a really successful product category," says Monsees. "They have a lot of value to people, but also a lot of baggage." Ploom’s challenge now is to capitalize on the "value"—a pretty decent euphemism for an addictive, carcinogenic stimulant—while navigating the "baggage"—not just the market’s outlook on cigarettes, but health concerns that have reshaped laws and even investment practices.

If a pair of Stanford grad students approached most VC firms in the Bay Area with a potentially disruptive product in a huge global sector where coming in 10th place can still mean billions in profits, they’d invest in a heartbeat. But for all Pax’s well-honed ease of use, investors have proven few and far between. "Most venture firms have a charter that limits the kinds of companies they can and can’t invest in. As it turns out, most of those charters are set on similar templates, and most of those templates say that tobacco investments are not allowed," Monsees explains. "So traditional venture investment was generally difficult or off the table to us."

Ploom found funding in angel investors and private groups, but even solid funding and a well-made product can’t possibly ensure success in this space. Assuming the public loves Pax—assuming Ploom is right about the need for diverse products in the tobacco industry and the appeal of a premium vaporization device—tobacco products are banned advertising on TV (in the U.S., at least, since 1971). Then, the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (PDF) placed even more limitations on marketing tobacco products.

But here’s where things get interesting: Pax isn’t a traditional tobacco product like a cigarette; there’s no tobacco inside. It’s just an electronic device, so the current FDA mandates on tobacco advertising actually don’t apply to them. Whereas Marlboro couldn’t sponsor the NBA Finals because of current regulations, technically speaking, Pax could. It’s a massive opportunity to market where the competition can’t.

Yet Ploom is passing on it, officially stating: "It is our intention to create the trustworthy brand in the tobacco space, including in the eyes of regulatory agencies like the FDA. Exploiting loopholes is not a good way to foster trust and goodwill particularly among regulatory agencies."

To ignore this marketing advantage is a crucial business decision that could affect the company’s long-term success. But even if Ploom could advertise the Pax itself, they probably couldn’t advertise the Pax’s biggest draw anyway: that less carcinogenic compounds are produced through vaporization than combustion. Despite the company’s "extensive testing" on the chemicals outputted by their vaporizer, they’re banned from, not just advertising that information, but even disclosing any potential health benefits to consumers within their own informational materials. Regulations are such that you can’t make health claims about tobacco (other than that required Surgeon General’s warning that it’ll kill you, of course).

People know cigarettes because they’re an established industry. People know e-cigarettes because they’re a media novelty. But do people, beyond marijuana enthusiasts, maybe, know vaporizers? If the public doesn’t know your product and has little opportunity to learn about it, how can you possibly sell it? Somehow, you’ve got to get people trying it out.

I’ve sampled vaporizers before, but I’m not a smoker—not even a "sometimes smoker," since my college days at least—but during a particularly beautiful sunset on Chicago’s Lake Michigan, I pull the Pax from my pocket to give it a whirl. It’s a hefty little thing that I’d pre-filled with some sweet tobacco Ploom had sent me for testing. The loading process was extremely simple. I just stuck a pinch into its basket and secured it by replacing the back panel, which snapped straight from my fingers thanks to some tiny, powerful magnets. I clicked on the mouthpiece like ballpoint pen, an LED lit up and, within 30 seconds, the Pax grew warm in my hand.

I took my first puff, tasting the faintest bits of fruit and toast. I took a second, deeper, with more flavor and a whisp of white on my exhale. Then I took a deep drag. And despite a complete lack of smoke or burn, I coughed like an amateur. I’m guessing this is pipe tobacco I’ve got, not really meant to be inhaled.

Within a few minutes, I find a balance. The visceral feeling was nowhere as satisfying as a cigar or a cigarette, and the taste was nowhere as rich. But I had to admit, the flavor of the tobacco vapor matched its natural smell—unlike cigars I’ve tried that smell amazing out of the box, but turned to regretful burnt garbage in my mouth. The vapor quality itself seemed on par with tabletop machines I’d tested in the past, and this gizmo fit right in my pocket—as a smokeless THC delivery system, it’d probably be fantastic. (Just saying!)

Strolling through an upper-class neighborhood, down the same streets wealthy retirees often puff giant cigars without a pang of guilt, I find myself remarkably self-conscious, hiding the device between drags. I’m worried the strange pipe will insinuate, not that I’m smoking tobacco—I couldn’t care less about the tobacco stigma—but that a cop or neighborhood busybody will assume that this metal pipe in my mouth is delivering some more illicit drug that requires their investigation.

Despite the premium black anodized aluminum and hypnotic LED—surely, a vaporizer worthy of Batman—all I can think is that I’d be so much more comfortable smoking one of those gaudy glowing cigarettes right now, or better still, the real thing. And in more than one sense, what a horrible thing to think.

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17 Comments

  • Ethan Huang

    Pax Ploom vaporizer for sale, only cost $60/set, any interests plz contact skype: ethanhxp197 or ethanhxp198@gmail.com. Thanks.

  • CannabisStrains

    The Pax is the Digital Volcano or Vivape 2's portable cousin - as far as I'm concerned. Temperature settings means no burning; the device (the black version at least) doesn't draw as much attention as the paranoid author alleges. Sure, the device needs to be cleaned routinely - but, quality requires maintenance. My only problem (now solved) was the short battery life. Ploom has a car charger for the Pax, and now I can stay out and puff whenever I want. Pax is my go-to vaporizer! It works, it's functional, and the style is worthy of the swanky yet stylish places I like to frequent.

  • Vaper

    My pax is idle... I use my minivap, I modded it... It works good with pipe tobacco and extremly well with mj and the battery is long lasting, two for a day, always on. Pax needs a clean a lot and delivers low vapor to new users but done right it works well. Taste goes fast away in pax. The minivap was made for pot advertised so too. But it works with tobacco on highest settings. I used to go through 75 grams a week with smoking tobacco now it's 50-100 grams every 4-6 weeks. Cheaper healthier and tasty... Exhale into shirt no one knows I hit a bacco moment.. Ha liberating... On a plane no probs... Hide minivap in jacket inside pocket and tube it to your mouth. Just don't exhale a big cloud... Blow it down your shirt inside...

  • jerkstore

    If you think 'e-cigs' are just those things that look like cigarettes with the fake burn, you are absolutely clueless. 'Vaping' liquid nicotine has come a long way. The tech behind Nicotine Vaporizers has completely surpassed the 'Ploom'. In fact, it did back in 2011. Research the Provari, Golden Greek, eVic etc.

    As for 'Mike' who says that you 'may as well smoke a cigarette'....well yeah, if you want cancer. Hmm, smoke a 'real' cigarette that tastes like crap and gives you cancer vs vape an ecig which tastes nice, doesn't smell and doesn't give you cancer. Why oh why wouldn't one 'just smoke a real cigarette'.

  • TheoDusko

    Mike actually said "All I can think is that I’d be so much more comfortable smoking one of
    those gaudy glowing cigarettes right now, or better still, the real
    thing. And in more than one sense, what a horrible thing to think."

    He wasn't saying "you might as well smoke a real cigarette, he was saying that he would feel more 'comfortable' smoking a real cigarette. And as a e-cigarette user I can fully relate, especially as one living in China. The idea here at least is that "men smoke cigarettes" and it's so strong that I've actually had people laugh andd think less of me for it when I turn down offers for cigarettes, something that definitely doesn't happen back home. A guy walking down the street not smoking might just not be smoking right at that moment and will maybe light up in a few moments. But if you are smoking an e-cigarette you are announcing your lack of manly black tar laden lungs to the world, and they will laugh in your face. (at least here in China). At home they might not laugh at you (although I assume some might) but you will definitely draw more attention to yourself than if you were smoking a real cigarette.

    Walking down the street smoking a cigarette.
    People's reaction: ... nothing. Most don't even notice you.

    Walking down the street sucking on a strange anodized aluminum gizmo.
    People's reaction: "WHAT WAS THAT?!"

    We love our anonymity. Drawing attention to ourselves (and our bad habits) is not something most of us enjoy.

  • Errl

    I'm sorry to say the Pax has been "recalled" as their is some problems for their main users and the oils that are produced.  They compare it to a ferrari, where you need to clean and service it every 1-2 uses.  Too much for me, i'll stick with the WIspr.  Really good concept and hopefully after a few more runs at it they will get it right, but right now, not for the everyday user, too much cleaning involved

  • Dr. srdx man

    WARNING: The Pax is a piece of junk. It does NOT flow vapor into the mouthpiece as advertised causing the user to suck hard on it, which results in the mouthpiece heating quickly and burning the users lips. The company does NOT stand behind the product with a 30-day money back guarantee.. and there's a reason for it.. It's a scam of a product.

  • PAVoutsinas

    I disagree  .... it works great for me. doesn't burn my herb unless I throw it to the highest setting.  It's amazing how it hardly smells on the lower settings. My LaunchBox stinks when i use it although it makes good vapor.

  • flopdog

    What? It has a 10 year guarantee, as stated on the website and in the box. You clearly aren't using it correctly. I find it to be perhaps the best vape I've ever used, and have had none of the problems you claim.

  • sparky.vg

    seems like a revolution waiting to take off to me.  forget advertising - these will go viral.  anyone who thinks that an e-cig needs to be like a cig are missing the point; if a nicotine addiction can be serviced, and managed/reduced, in a less unhealthy way then it's got to be a good thing.  i like to use my eGo e-cig with eLiquid and various non-tobacco flavours when i can, which reduces my smoking, but can't wait to try a pax.  ok, i'll still be a slave to the tobacco industry, but i just might live a little longer than if i keep inhaling combusted tobacco. 
    eLiquid vaporising is remarkably 'real' and far more convenient compared to smoking, but this promises to combine the two with few drawbacks.  how do i invest in ploom? 

  • Sean Andrew Kelly

    Thanks for the point of view. I really enjoyed reading about this concept. Although from the point of view of a current user of portable vaporizers, for use of smoking tobacco (and yes really just tobacco) for about a yea  now, I think this product has the potential to be truly great.
    I enjoy smoking and found using portable vaporizers a much better way to enjoy the habit. I smell better and feel much healthier. I know there is a lot of stigma regarding the health aspects but as someone that went from smoking 25 a day to using vaporizers a year ago I've found it helps amazingly. Like millions of us, I really enjoy the whole relaxing aspect of smoking even if you not inhaling the mixture, though i prefer to. I use organic aromatherapy herbs like mint or lemon balm mixed with tobacco. I'm sure it's nowhere near as safe as actually not smoking but I doubt anyone could argue that a pleasant smelling vapor is worse for you than inhaling a thick smoke. I like to think that the population will be smart enough to work that out, even with so much red tape in place for the advertising of such a idea.
    Got a couple of portable vaporizers and they are terribly embarrassing to use outside of my house. I  would much prefer to be embarrassed than to actually have to smoke though. People sometimes ask what is it and I just say it's a nicer way of smoking tobacco rather than going into the whole in's and outs . At work loads of people have asked to have a go, a good few have bought their own and noticing similar benefits as myself.

    Looking forward to trying this product to see if it works and wish the company luck because if it comes together like I hope it does, it would be a huge game changer in the smoking industry. 

  • denny pallenberg

    Great article, although I would question why a 'sometimes' or 'conflicted' smoker is going to pony up the money for an expensive product like this when they can bum a smoke or just a pack when they want one.  The idea of changing a smoker's habit, which I can attest to is quite difficult, to spend $30 to $40 on a vaporizer on for a product they use sometimes or are conflicted about using seems like a big leap to me.  As for the guy who posted about this being used for weed as a vaporizer, spot on, although honesty will get you no VC money either.   cheers. 

  • mike

    I really can't believe how little you touched based on how this is not truly meant for smoking tobacco. The proliferation of "E-cigarettes" is a joke (as their own sales can attest for). No one wants to smoke E-cigarettes, they make you look completely ridiculous, and if you go through all that trouble, why not just smoke a cigarette. This was created to vaporize marijuana. There are a few other similar products, but they are ugly and large. There are many advantages that come with vaporizing marijuana versus burning it. The Pax really stands out against all other vaporizers on the market, and with the constant loosening of laws against the criminalization of marijuana and also the growth of users and the medical marijuana industry, this product is coming at the right time. They may market it as a tobacco vaporizer but that is all a clever marketing guise; a few may buy it for that reason but I would wager that 95% of sales go to recreational or medical marijuana users. 
    C'mon man get real.

  • Josh

    Mike I have nothing to say to that stellar response other than you are enlightened my friend.

  • pambamboo

    Well written as usual, Mark!   Also good handling of a complex and controversial subject.  (Ex-English teacher here :)