Popularity Of A Smoking Alternative Is Causing Cigarette Sales To Tank

Steve Birr | Vice Reporter

An alternative tobacco technology that drastically cuts harms from smoking is causing cigarette sales to plummet at an “astounding” pace in Japan.

A press released Friday from Japan Tobacco (JT) shows the record declines the company has experienced in cigarettes sales throughout 2017 accelerated in the final month of the year. Heat-not-burn technologies like the IQOS device by Philip Morris International (PMI) are fueling the tobacco shakeup in Japan. Cigarette sales for Japan Tobacco experienced an 18 percent drop in December, an increase from previous months, showing sustained consumer interest in the heat-not-burn products pioneered by big tobacco companies.

Public health experts say the unprecedented success of heat-not-burn products developed by PMI and British American Tobacco (BAT) in the Japanese market shows the promising impact the technology could have on reducing global smoking rates.

“Japan category volumes fell over 18 percent year-over-year, faster than historical average declines of 1-2 percent and the fastest pace of decline this year,” said an analysis released Friday by Piper Jaffray. “Cigarette volumes for JT’s competitors (primarily PMI and BAT) declined almost 21 percent year-over-year. This pace is ahead of this year’s 11 percent average monthly declines, suggesting accelerating gains for heated tobacco products.”

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.” 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 in Europe at the same rapid pace as in Japan.

“The decline in cigarette sales continues to be astounding,” David Sweanor of the Center for Health Law, Policy and Ethics at the University of Ottawa told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Once again, Japan shows that smokers can migrate in very large numbers to alternative products. It is worth noting that the arguments against smokers having access to less hazardous products are largely ideological, hypothetical, implausible or of minor significance. But cigarette sales numbers in places like Japan are very concrete. For every 100 cigarettes sold in the country in December of 2016, only 82 were sold a year later.”

Unlike a traditional e-cigarette, which vaporizes nicotine fluid, the IQOS heats tobacco leaves. Users insert sticks resembling short cigarettes into the device, which heats a concentrated dose of tobacco, eliminating the harmful combustion process of cigarettes.

The Committee on Toxicity, an independent scientific committee that advises health services in the U.K., released research in December on the health profile of heat-not-burn devices compared to cigarettes. The study concluded that the devices eliminate up to 90 percent of the harmful chemicals and carcinogens released by cigarettes by cutting out the combustion process.

The researchers urge caution, saying the devices still pose a risk to the user’s health, but acknowledge the potential of the devices as harm reduction tools for smokers.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee will hold a meeting Jan. 24 to discuss the future of PMI’s IQOS device in America. The focus will be PMI’s Modified Risk Tobacco Product (MRTP) application, submitted to the FDA in Dec. 2016 and accepted for review in May, which will determine if the IQOS can be marketed as a safer alternative to smoking.

The meeting will serve to inform FDA officials currently reviewing the IQOS before a decision is made regarding approval of the MRTP application. The FDA began reviewing PMI’s product application for the IQOS in January 2017, which will determine if the product can be sold in the U.S. Previous speculation has suggested a decision on the IQOS device may be announced by the FDA sometime in February.

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