Marlboro-producer and tobacco giant Philip Morris International on Wednesday launched a non-burning cigarette alternative in the UK in a bid to phase out traditional cigarettes.
By Edith Hancock & Erin Brodwin | November 30th, 2016
But is the Iqos the silver bullet for smoking without the deadly side effects? And will it help Philip Morris with its goal to replace cigarettes with non-combustible alternatives?
Probably not. Here’s why.
First up, cigarettes kill
Philip Morris, the world’s largest international tobacco company, came under fire in 1999, when the US government brought a lawsuit claiming that leading cigarette makers were conspiring to lie about the dangers of cigarettes for decades.
The company, which owns cigarette makers like Marlboro and Benson & Hedges, has since recovered, and reported net earnings of more than £16 billion ($19.9 billion) in the third quarter of 2016.
About 15% of American adults smoke, compared with about 19% of adults in the UK. In the US, where it is the leading cause of preventable death, smoking kills 480,000 people each year and shortens the life of an average user by 10 years. In Great Britain, smoking causes 86% of lung cancer deaths. The burden is sharply felt by low-income communities in both countries; in the US, more than a quarter of people who currently live below the poverty level smoke. In the UK, that figure is closer to 30%.
Burning tobacco is terrible for you
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “the worst health consequences associated with smoking (e.g., cancer and heart disease) are linked to inhalation of tar and other chemicals produced by tobacco combustion; the pleasurable, reinforcing, and addictive properties of smoking are produced mostly by the nicotine contained in tobacco.”
Since the tobacco in the Iqos is not burned but heated to 350 degrees Celsius, Philip Morris claims it is healthier than traditional cigarettes. (The temperature of a burning cigarette, for contrast, typically ranges from about 800 to 900 degrees Celsius, according to a study published in the journal Nature.)
Importantly, these health claims have yet to be verified by an outside agency.
In clinical studies, Philip Morris is measuring the level of toxic compounds in the blood and urine of people who use the Iqos, but the results of those have so far been unconvincing.
The first study, conducted in 2013 in Poland and reported on by the New York Times last year, “showed that levels of some of the most toxic contaminants in tobacco smoke were substantially lower in users of the Iquos heat-not-burn device than in smokers, though they were somewhat higher than in those who abstained.” Problem was, the study only lasted five days (a fairly short time period for a study that’s designed to measure serious health effects.)
A second and third study involving more people and lasting between three and 12 months, are also being undertaken, according to the Times.
Not a traditional cigarette, not an e-cig
Instead of generating smoke, the Iqos device produces a vapor that delivers the nicotine from specially-designed “tobacco sticks.”
This is similar to the way many e-cigarettes currently on the market work, aside from one huge thing: Unlike most e-cigs, the Iqos still contains tobacco.
Most e-cigs are battery-powered devices that convert liquid nicotine from a cartridge into a vapor that the user inhales. While e-cigs don’t contain all of the harmful chemicals that traditional cigarettes do — including carbon monoxide and tar — they’re not completely harmless, either.
E-cig cartridges are typically filled with propylene glycol, the same stuff that’s used by fog machines. The US Food and Drug Administration approved propylene glycol for use in food. When you buy an e-cig cartridge, you can get differing amounts of nicotine (or none at all). You can also purchase flavored liquids such as chocolate, strawberry, and mint.
The Iqos would ostensibly contain both propylene glycol and tobacco.
Martin Inkster, Philip Morris’ UK and Ireland Managing Director, told Business Insider that the UK launch was part of the company’s overall aim to “replace cigarettes with non-combustible alternatives.”
The company claims that its new product — the Iqos — produces 90-95% less harmful chemicals than traditional cigarettes, but these claims have not been verified externally.
This is not the first time a cigarette company has experimented with heating, rather than burning, tobacco
In the 1980s, US tobacco giant Reynolds debuted a device called the Premier, which drew hot air from a burning piece of carbon placed over rolled tobacco and an aluminum ”flavor capsule” which contained nicotine and artificial flavoring. That product proved “highly unpopular,” the New York Times reported in 1988.
After Reynolds spent $300 million on research, development and marketing for the Premier, the product lasted just a year.
In addition to being wildly unpopular, the Premier faced opposition from health officials in states where it came out. An Arizona pharmacy organization, for example, voted in 1988 to ask Reynolds to voluntarily pull the cigarette, after the American Medical Association and several state-level medical groups said the device should be considered a ”new and hazardous system intended to deliver the drug nicotine,” according to the New York Times.
Philip Morris International has spent £2.4 billion ($3 billion) developing the Iqos, which launched in the UK on Wednesday.
The device costs £45 for the battery pack, which charges a slim cigarette holder. You can also buy the tobacco sticks (called “heets”) separately — which cost £8 for a pack of 20. In the US, e-cigarette prices range from $20 to $60 for a basic “starter kit,” which includes the e-cigarette, along with several cartridges and a charger for the device. In the UK, similar kits typically sell for around £20 to £40.
In 2015, Philip Morris hired more than 400 scientists and toxicologists in a bid to enter the e-cigarette market.