“I’m an American. We like to lead with that,” I began. I got half a laugh from Andres Calantzopoulos, the CEO of Philip Morris International (PMI) as we sat in the Pavilion room at the Hotel Shanghai in Tokyo.
PMI had paid for the airfare and accommodations of journalists from around the globe, as well as social media influencers, for the launch of their latest heat not burn tobacco products, the IQOS 3 and the IQOS Multi. As he puffed on his IQOS device, I continued my question.
“Tobacco was a product that was absolutely essential in the development of what would become the United States,” I said. “I say this because you’re not the CEO of a tech startup, you’re the CEO of a company that’s well over 100 years old… and a captain of an industry that is five centuries old. So I wondered if you could, in that five-century context, rather than the past tumultuous 50 years, say where tobacco as a global product is today?”
His initial reply was pretty clear: “Tobacco is still a global product.” Over the next half hour, Calantzopoulos, a soft-spoken but very direct man, discussed the evolution of tobacco, and why he is directing his company to focus on noncombustible products like IQOS to switch people away from what PMI argues are more dangerous combustible cigarettes.
In a nutshell, what IQOS and other heat not burn products do is use electricity to heat a small tobacco heat stick in a handheld device, releasing nicotine into a vapor without burning the leaves. PMI’s claim is that most harmful chemicals are released by combustion, making heat not burn a product with significantly less risk. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently judging these claims to determine if the product can be sold in the United States, and if it will be given a much-coveted Modified Risk Tobacco Product label.
The FDA and other regulators face two essential questions when assessing the impact of heat not burn tobacco products. The first question is whether such products actually reduce risk in comparison to traditional combustible cigarettes.
Here PMI seems to be on solid footing. Their own research as well as that of independent scientists does find reductions in chemicals that cause illness. The FDA’s advisory panel found last January that the broad claim of harmful chemical reduction was accurate, although it also found PMI had not conclusively shown that the product will reduce disease.
At global nicotine conferences, industry leaders, regulators, and academics work together to present as clear a picture as possible of the advantages of non-traditional products, such as heat not burn and e-cigarettes. At this point, it is widely agreed that such products really do reduce risk, and should be offered as an alternative for those who already smoke combustible tobacco products. Some scientists raise concernsabout harmful chemicals that may be associated with the creation of the vapor.
The second question regulators face is trickier. If regulators assume — as the evidence, especially in Japan, where the product is most popular — suggests, that some large percentage of smokers can and will switch to reduced-risk products, they then have to balance that benefit with the potential harm to people who might not otherwise take up tobacco but will because of the reduced-risk claims.
In Japan, where e-cigarettes are banned, heat not burn products like IQOS are basically the only other option that mimics the action and nicotine delivery of smoking. There, it is not clear how many people have chosen to use IQOS who might otherwise not use tobacco at all. But in the United States, where e-cigarettes are legal, they already are a product that can attract non-smokers to nicotine use. This is why the regulatory regimes in the United States are so focused on the use of e-cigs by teens.
Who Is the Customer?
This creates an extremely fine line that the industry has to walk, and in PMI’s case forces them to make a claim that many find hard to believe. This claim is that they are not seeking new nicotine users as customers, but only people who already smoke. Calantzopoulos told me that the 1 billion smokers on the planet are already a huge market, enough to make plenty of money. That’s true for now, but it raises real questions about the future.
Given that millions of people each year smoke their first cigarette, why would it not be preferable for them to use their first heat stick instead? Furthermore, in a list of PMI promisesregarding IQOS, the third one is “beauty.” Because people will carry the product all day, “it’s part of how people see us. It has to be beautiful.” This isn’t just a nicotine delivery system, it’s a nice-looking piece of futuristic tech, and who doesn’t want that?
These are valid concerns for regulators and society as a whole, but it must be remembered that the baseline here is 1 billion people, myself included, who are currently doing themselves great harm by smoking traditional cigarettes.
The second night in Tokyo, I had a long conversation with PMI’s president of reduced risk products, Mirek Zielinski, a spitfire of man who, like most of the executives, was using IQOS. He convinced me to agree that if he gave me an IQOS device and heat sticks the next morning at the press conference, I would forego regular cigarettes for three days. It was not easy to convince me, since I was able to smoke in my hotel room and a pack only runs about $5 in Tokyo, but I decided to take him up on it.
The presser at the Park Hyatt (location of “Lost in Translation”), like all of the presentations over the two days, looked and felt like a tech product launch, complete with giant screens showing glitzy videos and a bare stage for the CEO. Afterwards, I got my IQOS, smoked a final Marlboro, and gave the device a go. I had tried it once before and knew that I found it far closer to actual smoking than I did an e-cig, but I did not know how my promised three-day abstinence from fire would go.
Speaking only for myself, of course, I found the switch pretty easy. I had little, if any, desire to cheat, and did not have significant cravings for a cigarette. The IQOS 3, which is not much bigger than a cigarette, was for me a better substitute than the IQOS Multi, which is bigger but requires less recharge time. About the only thing I couldn’t do is type while holding it between my fingers or lips.
As it turned out, I not only lasted the three days I had promised but almost a week until my supply of heat sticks ran out. I cannot buy more in the United States. This is obviously anecdotal and only a short period of time, but if the FDA approves IQOS for sale in the United States, I could see myself switching to it, or at the very least trying to.
The Future of Tobacco
On the last night, PMI threw a giant launch party at an ancient Japanese garden all lit up and decked out with several rooms of drinks, food, music, and, of course, IQOS devices. DJ Keoki played and I was told Wyclef Jean was there, although I didn’t see him. Once again, this was like a scene out of the sitcom “Silicon Valley.” It was also the influencers’ time to shine as selfie after selfie was snapped and uploaded to the social media networks they supposedly influence.
This brought me back to some of my initial thoughts about tobacco as a 500-year-old global product, and what the future might hold for it. I asked Calantzopoulos if he can envision a time in which risk-reduced tobacco can be on par with alcohol or fast food and tobacco companies can go after new consumers, basically announcing that tobacco is back. To his credit, he didn’t fully duck the question. He said that debate will come, but it’s “premature.”
For now, PMI promises to chart a course that only reaches out to current smokers, not a business plan that attracts new nicotine users. Given the checkered history of the tobacco industry, regulators and society are justified in skepticism about this claim. For now, what the FDA and all of us should be looking for is transparency in the science that underlies the claims of reduced risk.
Tobacco has for centuries been one of the most successful commercial products to emerge from the New World. It has reached into every corner of the globe. Cigarettes alone have 1 billion users. If Philip Morris succeeds in switching people to their high-tech products — making the lighter obsolete, as they put it — and it proves to significantly reduce risk, it will be a major evolution in the product’s history.
It is too early to know if this will happen, but if it does, tobacco, the leaf that enthralled the world, may enjoy another 500 years of massive commercial success.