Cigarette Sales Continue Historic Plunge As New Technologies Take Over

Steve Birr | Vice Reporter

Alternative smoking technologies that greatly reduce health risks from tobacco are booming in popularity overseas and driving down cigarette sales at a historic pace.

The unprecedented success of heat-not-burn products developed by Philip Morris International (PMI) and British American Tobacco (BAT) are sending cigarette sales spiraling downward at levels never before seen in Japan’s tobacco market, where heat-not-burn products were first introduced. The trend away from combustible tobacco appears to be sustained and even accelerating, according to a recent analysis.

Japan cigarette volumes declined nearly 17 percent year-over-year, the “fastest rate of decline this year,” according to a report from Piper Jaffray released Friday. The drop in sales also far outpaces the 1 to 2 percent annual declines historically seen in cigarette volumes in the country. The report shows that companies pioneering heat-not-burn products, primarily PMI, are also experiencing major losses for their combustible tobacco products, which declined roughly 18 percent year-over-year in Japan.

Public health experts say this is further proof that smokers will opt for healthier alternatives that can help them quit combustible tobacco when given the choice.

Early research shows heat-not-burn products drastically cut the risk for tobacco related cancers and diseases by heating tobacco leaves instead of burning them. Research from scientists at Public Health England, an arm of the U.K.’s Department of Health, shows roughly 95 percent of the damaging chemicals and carcinogens from cigarettes are only released through the combustion of tobacco.

PMI’s iQOS debuted in Japan last year before being introduced in additional countries. BAT is also competing in the country with a similar heat-not-burn device called the “glo.” Japan Tobacco, on the other hand, did not bring a reduced-risk product to their market until July of this year, and their sales are suffering as a result.

The iQOS is also being introduced in cities throughout Europe. Data from a Piper Jaffray report in November suggests the public transition from cigarettes to heat-not-burn products is happening at the same rapid pace as the declines in Japan.

Research published Oct. 11 in the journal PLOS ONE argues that the unprecedented demand for heat-not-burn tobacco devices in countries like Japan and Singapore shows the huge potential for the products in American markets. The FDA is currently reviewing applications for heat-not-burn products to be sold domestically.

The study analyzed Google search query data to determine the growth potential for heat-not-burn products. Dr. John Ayers, an adjunct associate professor at San Diego State University and lead researcher on the study, argues that products like iQOS are gaining ground because they more closely mimic the “throat hit” associated with cigarettes than vaping products.

“Heat-not-burn products have quickly become insanely popular,” Mark Dredze, professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of the study, said in a statement Oct. 11. “Two years ago, there were essentially no queries in Japan for heat-not-burn tobacco, but now there are between 5.9 and 7.5 million each month.”

Despite the promising news on alternative smoking technologies and their potential to reduce smoking-related illnesses and save millions of lives, health care bodies remain vehemently opposed to the products. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently helped derail efforts to expand access to reduced-risk products in Turkey.

Efforts to spread misinformation on alternative smoking options that minimize their benefits simply deny smokers less harmful options while tacitly encouraging them to keep using a more dangerous product, public health advocates say.

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