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What kinds of liquid-type e-cigs are sold in Korea?

The South Korean government on Wednesday issued a “strong warning” on the use of liquid-type e-cigarettes over health concerns, drawing public attention to the different popular brands available here. 

Health Minister Park Neung-hoo speaks Wednesday during a briefing at the government complex in Gwanghwamun, Seoul. (Yonhap)
Health Minister Park Neung-hoo speaks Wednesday during a briefing at the government complex in Gwanghwamun, Seoul. (Yonhap)

There are three types of e-cigarettes sold in Korea: heat-not-burn, liquid, and a hybrid version which combines the first two types. Korea’s e-cigarette brands account for 13.5 percent of its tobacco market by sales as of June, according to government data. The total tobacco market has been valued at 18.4 trillion won as of the last year.

While the lion’s share of the local market is still led by traditional cigarettes with 86.5 percent, the popularity of e-cigarettes has expanded rapidly in the past few years, as most brands promote them as being odorless and flavorful.

Although the liquid-type e-cigarette brands were launched prior to heat-not-burn type that was introduced in 2017 here via Philip Morris International, its market share is only 0.4 percent, while HNB brands take up 13.1 percent.

But with US e-cigarette startup Juul Labs launching its compact-sized USB-like e-cigarette Juul this year, attracting young adults with a sleek design and various flavored liquid pods, liquid-type brands are gaining popularity. 

Since May, when Juul started sales in Korea, an accumulated 6 million liquid pods have been sold, boosted by the country’s No. 1 tobacco maker KT&G launching Lil Vapor right after, mimicking Juul. One liquid pod offers an equivalent dose of one cigarette packet. 

While Juul and Lil Vapor are two most representative liquid e-cigarette brands here, market insiders say there are many other foreign brands of lesser-known firms from China and the US. 

Liquid e-cigarettes work by vaporizing the liquid cartridge attached to the device through heating. Hybrid types do use liquid cartridge as well, but they do not contain nicotine or flavors unlike the liquid types, as they only help the tobacco pod to vaporize easily.

Due to the materials contained in the liquid cartridge, concerns have been persisting whether they are safe to smoke. 

According to the Environment Ministry, of some 71 types of base chemical materials registered to be used in liquid e-cigarettes, 45 include unidentified substances, making it difficult to figure out what exactly is inside the cartridge. 

Concerns have risen especially after a pneumonia case of an e-cigarette user who switched from HNB to liquid-type e-cigarette was reported earlier this month. 

In the US, health officials have announced plans to remove flavored e-cigarettes from stores across the nation, following 33 deaths and 1,479 confirmed and probable cases from unknown respiratory illness related to vaping.

By Kim Da-sol (