The Cigarette That Charges for Every Puff

A recent patent from Phillip Morris imagines a web-connected e-cig. It could help users quit—but it could also open their pipe up to tracking and hacking.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Cigarettes might have one of the easiest-to-understand interfaces in the world.

Step one: Light it.

Step two: Inhale from the side that isn’t on fire.

A new patent from Philip Morris hints at how that basic interface could get a good deal more complicated when you add a computer. The patent, published earlier this week, proposes an e-cigarette that could connect to a computer or phone via wifi or USB.

In other words, an Internet-enabled—a smart—e-cig.

Once smartened-up, the Internet-connected pipe can do many things. Not-so-usefully, it could let users initiate a puff from the computer—in case, I suppose, old-fashioned inhaling gets too hard. Slightly-more-usefully, it could automatically send doctors information about how much tobacco was burned and for how long. That feature could be especially handy if the cigarette’s user is participating in a clinical trial, or trying—with someone or something else’s help—to stop smoking.

The patent's illustration of a USB-connected e-cig (USPTO)

Many of the e-cig’s Internet-enabled features are described as helping would-be quitters. In the patent’s ninth column, its authors propose one feature that might help them understand smoking’s costs: pay-as-you-puff. Smokers, it says, might want to charge themselves a little bit of money every time they take a hit:

For example, the user buys daily or weekly or monthly smoking time from the Internet application supported on the PC, or the user obtains smoking time credits based on cigarettes and other smoking articles bought via the Internet application.

The authors also envision the cigarette giving users access to an “approved support group Internet site for assistance with smoking cessation,” which could then—through the web connection—“offer a controlled amount of smoking time whilst monitoring the smoking behavior.”

In other words, the smart e-cig could grant users a control they can’t always summon.

Or, somewhat more insidiously: They could let tobacco companies give away smart joints cheaply and then literally sell the experience of smoking—or, on the other side, allow cities and governments to initiate a new, somewhat terrifying form of tobacco tax. “Smoke too close to a public park? NYC Wall Monitors will detect your lit e-cig and auto-send a fine to your email address.

Goldman Sachs has identified e-cigarettes of all sorts as one of the eight great disruptive technologies of 2014, and it’s named the Internet of Things as the “next mega-trend.” (Though I’m not sure what separates a mega-trend from a ginormo-trend or, for that matter, a decepti-trend.)

This newly patented Internet of Vape epitomize all the promise and peril of web-enabled smartness. As Alexis Madrigal and I wrote last month, when you connect some previously dumb object to the Internet, it can be both hacked, and you can be tracked. That tracking in particular can happen for good or ill: As this patent imagines, smart objects give you access to health data and let you share it easily with doctors; they also allow it to be stolen or used against you.

And—perhaps most importantly, and as pay-as-you-smoke testifies—when you connect an object to the Internet, you don’t quite own it the same way as you did before.