Is a smoke-free future possible? PMI believes so

Mohamed Samir
12 Min Read

Neuchatel – Philip Morris International Inc. (PMI) recently hosted its fifth Technovation at its R&D Centre in Neuchatel, Switzerland, that is referred to as ‘the Cube.’

Throughout the conference, Daily News Egypt (DNE) engaged with PMI’s senior leaders, scientists, and R&D experts on the company’s shift towards a smoke-free future.

“A smoke-free future is just the beginning of fulfilling our mission,” said CEO of PMI Jacek Olzcak.

“We are committed to ultimately having a net positive impact on society, and to that end, we are diligently working to expand our purpose, evolving in the long term into a broader lifestyle, consumer wellness, and healthcare company.”

Olzcak added that in 10 years, cigarettes “should be placed in a museum.”

Moreover, he said that the company aims to have 50% of its total net revenue come from smoke-free products by 2025.

Over the last decade, the popularity of traditional cigarettes has been on the decline, as electronic vapes and new smoke-free alternatives called heated tobacco products are slowly gaining a foothold across the globe.

The tobacco industry was challenged to reduce the harm caused by cigarettes. Accordingly, since 2008, PMI has invested more than $9bn in researching, developing, scientifically substantiating, and commercialising non-combustible alternatives.

These alternatives are not risk-free and still provide nicotine, which is addictive; however, PMI present substantiated evidence that they are a far better choice than cigarettes for the millions of adults who would otherwise continue smoking.

However, the shift into smoke-free products has faced many hurdles in many countries, as several legislators have doubts about their impacts.

Tommaso Di Giovanni — Vice President of Global Communications at PMI — told DNE about the main obstacles that face the adoption of smoke-free products.

“All great changes need time to be accepted by society, and smoke-free products are not an exception. Above all, dialogue and transparent information are needed to ensure that the time between innovation and their adoption is reduced. Misinformation and confusion around smoke-free products are unfortunately one of the main obstacles that we face on our journey towards a smoke-free future,” Di Giovanni said.

He added that, therefore, PMI continuously and relentlessly works to share accurate information on the science and technology behind their smoke-free products to address misinformation and confusion, such as the one most people have on basic principles, like the role of nicotine and combustion and their association with smoking-related diseases.

Furthermore, he explained that regulations also play a vital role in the adoption of smoke-free products.

“There’s no argument that decreasing cigarette use is something that makes public health sense” Di Giovanni stressed.

However, he indicated that excessive restrictions on all products simply do not work as shown by the case of France. Smokers must be offered alternatives, and that is exactly what countries like the UK and New Zealand are doing.

“If you put together a regulatory framework for all countries with significant restrictions on cigarettes and the ability for smokers to receive information on better alternatives, you could quickly end cigarette smoking,” he said.

“We believe that an increasing number of governments will recognise the relative benefits of science-based smoke-free products for adult smokers n who would otherwise continue to smoke.

Company officials believe that innovation and technology can help reduce the harm caused by smoking and have a role to play in addressing a global public health issue.

Over years of disruptive thinking, the company has produced results based on robust science and years of R&D experience to develop, scientifically substantiate, and commercialise a range of smoke-free alternatives for adults who would otherwise continue to smoke.

The company claims that these products demonstrate how PMI constantly improves user experience and responds to consumers’ needs via its consistently updated technology.

“PMI has been an early adopter and innovator in driving positive change for those legal-aged smokers who otherwise would continue to smoke,” said Stefano Volpetti — Chief Consumer Officer at PMI.

“For those people, we have already made significant progress on the greatest positive impact we can have on society — replacing the cigarettes they smoke with better alternatives.”

The science behind smoke-free products

It is well known that smoking tobacco causes a number of serious diseases and increases the risk of early death.

Tobacco control strategies in most countries focus on supply and demand measures intended to prevent initiation, reduce consumption, and encourage cessation. These measures have resulted in a decline in smoking prevalence over the last three decades but are unlikely to quickly eliminate smoking altogether. In fact, based on population trends, it is estimated that there will be more than 1bn smokers by 2025. About the same number as today.

PMI argues that given the number of smokers who will continue to smoke cigarettes, and as the technology now exists and will continue to develop, it makes sense to offer them less harmful, yet satisfying, smoke-free alternatives.

In this regard, sensible risk-based policies and regulations should allow adult smokers to access scientifically substantiated smoke-free products to help address the harm caused by smoking more effectively and rapidly than traditional policy measures alone.

Gizelle Baker — Vice President of Global Scientific Engagement at PMI — said that seven years ago, the company started commercialising the product after having the science in place.

DNE then asked her about how the scientific community views such studies, she responded that many scientists are stigmatised for working for a tobacco company, making them fearful of publishing truly scientific findings.

“I think when we break it down and get into the scientific realm, people want to know the answers, and a lot of people are willing to look at facts and learn from them,” she added.

She indicated that when the company started the programme that they presented to the US Federal Drug Administration (FDA), they were looking for people who had the know-how and can conduct the complex studies.

Doing a blood draw while the person is smoking in a room without contaminating the sample was not an easy job.

“We are now kicking off several larger studies in multiple regions; we are having a COPD study — a study that combines information from medical histories, lung function tests, and genetic testing to identify risk factors and to characterise how the disease worsens over time — that will have over 1,800 subjects in it,” she said.

It will investigate continued smoking vs switching to smoke-free products vs quitting, she added. These studies are going to be in Asia, Europe, and the US to provide global data on the long term.

“As part of our ongoing long-term assessment, PMI has conducted repeated post-market cross-sectional surveys in a representative sample of the adult population from Japan, Italy, and Germany to monitor the prevalence of the tobacco heating system (THS) after its commercialisation.”

“These studies show that the total use prevalence of tobacco or nicotine- containing products (TNPs) in Japan, Italy, and Germany is overall stable across time, with higher total TNP use prevalence in Italy and Germany compared to Japan. These studies also show growing prevalence of THS use among TNP users across time with a higher prevalence of THS use in Japan (2019: 18.4%) compared to Italy (2019: 4.1%) and Germany (2019: 1.2%),” Baker said.

“As of September 2022, there are approximately 19.5 million users of PMI heated tobacco products (HTPs) globally, excluding Russia and Ukraine, of which approximately 13.5 million (69%) have switched to PMI HTPs and stopped smoking.”

Regarding the impact of switching to smoke-free products on cardiovascular disease, Baker explained that smoking-related diseases, such as lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, and emphysema, are caused primarily by inhaling harmful compounds largely formed when tobacco is burned, not by nicotine..

Since smoke-free products reduce 90-95% of toxicants in traditional cigarettes, it will reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, however, quitting will reduce the risk further than switching.

Heated tobacco products have been marketed as a better alternative to smoking, but the American Academy of Paediatrics warns the devices contain about the same amount of nicotine as traditional cigarettes.

As the US Food and Drug Administration has stated, “inhalation of nicotine (i.e., nicotine without the products of combustion) is of less risk to the user than the inhalation of nicotine delivered by smoke from combusted tobacco products.”

Regarding lung cancer, it will require more long-term studies, “but what we do know is that it is a dose response, there is a higher risk to those who smoke two packs a day compared to one, there is higher risk if you smoke for 40 years compared to 20 years.”

Product variety and affordability

The company offers several products that appeal to different types of users. Traditionally, one of the main obstacles to the switch into smoke-free alternatives was the affordability.

In response to this issue, PMI announced last week the launch of its latest heat-not-burn tobacco heating system BONDS by IQOS with its accompanying specially designed tobacco sticks BLENDS.

BONDS will be the economic version of the company’s flagship product IQOS. The company aims to address consumer acquisition barriers for this segment, most notably, up-front device costs and authentic tobacco taste satisfaction.

IQOS is currently available in around 70 countries across the globe.

While heating tobacco is one possibility in developing alternatives to continued cigarette smoking, another approach is to generate an aerosol by heating an e-liquid formulation.

The company has also delved into the e-vapour segment, these battery-powered devices — commonly known as vapes or e-cigarettes — vaporise a liquid solution containing nicotine and flavours.

PMI launched its vape, IQOS VEEV, in select markets.

The company is also producing Nicotine pouches that do not contain tobacco and are made primarily of nicotine and flavours wrapped in a cellulose pouch and are placed between the gum and the cheek or upper lip.

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Mohamed Samir Khedr is an economic and political journalist, analyst, and editor specializing in geopolitical conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and the Eastern Mediterranean. For the past decade, he has covered Egypt's and the MENA region's financial, business, and geopolitical updates. Currently, he is the Executive Editor of the Daily News Egypt, where he leads a team of journalists in producing high-quality, in-depth reporting and analysis on the region's most pressing issues. His work has been featured in leading international publications. Samir is a highly respected expert on the Middle East and Africa, and his insights are regularly sought by policymakers, academics, and business leaders. He is a passionate advocate for independent journalism and a strong believer in the power of storytelling to inform and inspire. Twitter: LinkedIn: