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The Largest Tobacco Company In The World Is Betting Their Future On High-Tech Alternatives To Cigarettes

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Steve Birr Vice Reporter
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  • Philip Morris International (PMI) aims to have 30 percent of their sales volume come from alternative technologies by 2025.
  • The company has invested $4.5 billion into research and development of smoke-free products, mainly the IQOS heat-not-burn device.
  • U.S. regulators remain skeptical of the technology and have yet to approve it for domestic sale.
  • Critics claim this is more of the same tactics from Big Tobacco companies aimed at boosting profits.
  • PMI estimates more than 5 million former smokers globally have fully transitioned to IQOS and quit combustible cigarettes.

NEUCHATEL, SWITZERLAND — The largest tobacco company in the world is betting their future on a “smoke-free” technology they claim offers adult smokers a viable pathway to ditching cigarettes.

Philip Morris International (PMI), the manufacturer of brands including Marlboro, is pivoting away from their traditional cash cows in favor of a heated tobacco technology called IQOS. The company has invested more than $4.5 billion since 2008 to develop reduced-risk alternatives, an effort led by a team of doctors and scientists at a massive research facility in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, dubbed the Cube.

Researchers at the Cube conduct an array of lab tests on a daily basis investigating the various health impacts of the IQOS, as well as several other reduced-risked products currently in their pipeline. PMI hopes their significant investments into product testing and safety research will show consumers skeptical of their motivations that they are committed to transitioning away from combustible tobacco.

“Obviously there’s a business interest for us, there’s no denying that, but there’s also a consumer interest,” Corey Henry, a spokesman for PMI, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “You’re at a point now where those two interests are absolutely intertwined. There’s an enormous interest in the U.S. for smoking alternatives. Some have found it, some have not.”

The company hopes to target the population of adult smokers who have failed to quit through traditional means and who do not find vapor products to be a satisfying alternative. Unlike a traditional e-cigarette, which vaporizes nicotine fluid, the IQOS heats tobacco leaves. Users insert sticks resembling short cigarettes called Heets into the device’s blade, which heats a concentrated dose of tobacco, eliminating the more harmful process of combustion.

The device contains an internal control system that keeps the temperature of the heating blade between roughly 570 degrees and 660 degrees Fahrenheit, in order to ensure the temperature never rises high enough to burn the tobacco leaves. By eliminating tobacco smoke, which occurs at a temperature of roughly 752 degrees, PMI’s scientists say users are protected from the majority of carcinogens and toxins released by combustible cigarettes.

PMI’s critics say the IQOS is more of the same from tobacco companies who desperately need to shift strategies amid globally declining smoking rates. University of Southern California Professor Adam Leventhal, a noted critic of nicotine products who helped promote the idea that e-cigarettes are a “gateway” to smoking, says he is concerned the IQOS Heets, “reminds you of a cigarette.”

“And we know if you get reminded of cigarettes and you’re trying to quit, it’s a high-risk situation, it makes you want to go back to smoking,” Leventhal told CBS News in January ahead of a hearing on the device by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Scientists at the Cube, however, point to the company’s trove of peer-reviewed research as evidence the IQOS holds benefit for adult smokers. They also stress that the product is not harmless and is not intended for non-smokers or people who have quit combustible cigarettes.

The company has published roughly 250 peer-reviewed studies regarding the health profile of the IQOS. PMI has also participated in eight clinical trials of the IQOS that are registered for public consumption and review through ClinicalTrials.gov.

Public health experts focused on harm reduction say it is essential to give adult smokers variety in their alternatives, particularly when cigarettes remain the number one cause of preventable death worldwide. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb agrees and has previously discussed the importance of moving smokers down “the continuum of risk” through technological innovation.

Gottlieb says he recognizes many smokers either cannot or will not quit, despite polls showing an overwhelming desire among smokers for effective alternatives that reduce health harms.

“We have known for decades that a great many people who smoke cigarettes wish to reduce their risks,” David Sweanor of the Center for Health Law, Policy and Ethics at the University of Ottawa previously told TheDCNF. “We now have electronic options such as vaping and ‘heat-not-burn’ products like IQOS and glo. These have led to sustained double-digit rates of decline in cigarette sales in Japan and South Korea.”

Sweanor, who fought against the Big Tobacco companies in the 1990s, says the unprecedented success of heat-not-burn products in Japanese and European markets show the promising impact the technology could have on reducing global smoking rates. (RELATED: Heat-Not-Burn Sales Are Not Slowing)

The device, which initially debut in Japan, is now available in 40 different countries. Health regulators in the U.S., however, remain skeptical. The FDA is currently reviewing a premarket tobacco application that would allow the products to be sold in the U.S., as well as a Modified Risk Tobacco Product (MRTP) application, which will determine if the IQOS can be marketed as a safer alternative to smoking.

The FDA’s Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee rejected the majority of health claims made by PMI regarding the IQOS at a hearing Jan. 25, while simultaneously endorsing claims made by PMI that their device “significantly” slashes a user’s exposure to “harmful chemicals.”

FDA regulators can choose to disregard the recommendations of the panel and many harm reduction experts agree they should. Clive Bates of Counterfactual, a public interest consultancy and advocacy group, said after the January hearing that PMI researchers, “showed beyond any reasonable doubt that switching from cigarettes to IQOS would give reductions of 90 percent or more in exposure to the most important toxins.”

Representatives for PMI claim the company is committed to the development of their reduced-risk portfolio and shifting their focus away from combustible cigarettes.

“By 2025 our minimum ambition is to have 30 percent of sales volume coming from smoke-free products,” Henry told TheDCNF. “They are already 13 percent of PMI’s net revenue, after starting from the point of zero just a few years ago. To go from absolutely nothing to 13 percent of our net revenue in a very short amount of time is a pretty clear indicator that there’s potential. There’s consumer interest and opportunity for us, but also opportunity for the individual smoker.”

The FDA has not given any indication on when they will make a ruling regarding PMI’s premarket and modified-risk applications, which remain under review.

Governments around the world are beginning to warm to alternative smoking technologies as a way to accelerate declines in their smoking rates. New Zealand recently said they wish to leverage alternative smoking technologies to achieve a zero smoking rate in the future.

“The government has said they see smoke-free products, which they enumerate as e-cigarettes, heated tobacco products, snus and other products of this nature, as an additional avenue that would be considered to help them get to a zero smoking rate in the country,” Joshua Townsend, manager of external communications at PMI, told TheDCNF. “They see these as a compliment to the traditional tobacco control measures they have. We have 21st century science that can address a 20th century problem.”

Public Health England, an arm of the U.K.’s Department of Health promotes vaping as a way to quit smoking. While they stress the need for more independent research into heat-not-burn products, Public Health England says the products are likely, “considerably less harmful than tobacco cigarettes,” while being, “more harmful than e-cigarettes.”

PMI estimates more than five million former smokers in 40 different markets across the world have completely quit combustible cigarettes by transitioning to the IQOS.

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