Smokescreen, Philip Morris International, Cigarettes, Smoking, E-Cigarettes

Smokescreen, Philip Morris International

The ‘Unsmoke’ screen: The truth behind Philip Morris' cigarette-free future

Some experts fear that PMI will continue to sell billions of cigarettes worldwide while promoting itself as 'part of the solution' to smoking

2/27/2020 3:40:00 AM

Some experts fear that PMI will continue to sell billions of cigarettes worldwide while promoting itself as 'part of the solution' to smoking. SmokeScreen

Some experts fear that PMI will continue to sell billions of cigarettes worldwide while promoting itself as 'part of the solution' to smoking

Updated 1:28 PM, February 26, 2020UNITED KINGDOM – The crowd screamed as Calvin Harris began his set at 2019’s Djakarta Warehouse Project, one of Asia’s biggest dance music festivals. The floor pulsed. As each song built, fans jumped up and down, climbed on each other’s shoulders or swayed as they filmed the DJ on their phones.

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Opposite the main stage was a sleek building made of solid glass and red lights, with everything a festivalgoer needed to relax: sofas, televisions, Playstations – and cigarettes for sale. The Marlboro Penthouse gave Philip Morris International (PMI), the world’s biggest multinational tobacco company, an opportunity to promote its cigarettes to 90,000 young attendees.

Throughout the festival there were bright Marlboro signs over bars and benches where people sat smoking. There was a Marlboro “Discover Room” with interactive red, blue, and yellow booths, echoing cigarette-pack branding, and an arcade game. The festival’s shops sold only Marlboro-branded cigarettes and the company employed attractive saleswomen to roam around promoting the products.

That heavy promotion was curious, as 3 years earlier, PMI’s chief executive had made a claim so surprising it had made headlines all over the world. He had announced a new ambition for his company: to phase out cigarettes entirely.In 2017, PMI officially laid out its vision for a “smoke-free” future. André Calantzopoulos, the previously camera-shy chief executive, started giving interviews about his company’s “transformation.” He wanted to switch smokers to PMI’s new range of cigarette alternatives, which he said, would improve public health.

Two years ago PMI said it could stop selling cigarettes by 2030 in the UK. A global campaign called “Unsmoke Your World,” promoting the idea that anyone could become an “Unsmoker,” was released a year later. PMI could be “part of the solution” to smoking, executives said. It hired advertising, PR and lobbying companies to promote a narrative of a new purpose-led, responsible business.

Yet careful scrutiny of its activities and internal documents by the Bureau reveals that much of the campaign is spin rather than substance – just as the recent advertising of Marlboro cigarettes to young Indonesians would suggest.PENTHOUSE. The Marlboro Penthouse at the Djakarta Warehouse Project. Screengrab from mmk_designstudio on Instagram

The Unsmoke mission is a marketing campaign for PMI’s new range of cigarette alternatives and a blatant attempt to rehabilitate the company’s image so it can once again seek to influence policy and regulations. Arguably, it has succeeded: although smoking rates have fallen in the past decade, PMI’s profits and share price have increased.

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Some experts fear that if the company’s narrative is taken at face value PMI will continue to sell billions of cigarettes worldwide while promoting itself as “part of the solution” to smoking. It could lure a new generation into addiction with its new products, whose long-term health risks are unknown, and discourage people who might have quit altogether from doing so.

“The multi-billion dollar tobacco industry will do everything they can to stay in business,” said Dr Vinayak Prasad, head of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) tobacco control division. He believes that what they are saying is far from reality.“If they really want to be a part of the solution, they should go tobacco-free, not smoke-free. If they are genuine about a tobacco-free society, they will readily embrace anything to reduce the demand for all forms of tobacco products.”

Dr Moira Gilchrist, a vice-president of PMI, told the Bureau: “Our vision is that one day smoke-free products will replace cigarettes. The sooner the world transitions away from cigarettes, the sooner we can stop making them.”The era of IqosCOLORFUL. IQOS on display. Photo courtesy of Stanford University

Calantzopoulos makes a point of using PMI’s flagship product, a sleek gadget that looks like a cross between an iPhone and an expensive pen. It is called Iqos, which is widely believed to be an acronym for “I Quit Ordinary Smoking” – although this is consistently denied by the company – and is now available in 52 countries worldwide.

It looks like an e-cigarette, or vape, but there is a key difference: it contains tobacco, where e-cigarettes only hold a nicotine solution. PMI has developed sticks of tobacco, called Heatsticks or Heets, which are inserted into the Iqos device and warmed to 350 degrees Celsius (much lower than the 800 degrees of a burning cigarette) until tendrils of aerosol are released. This mimics the rituals of smoking and gives users a satisfying kick of nicotine while inhaling fewer carcinogens.

Calantzopoulos, a Greek electrical engineer who has spent 35 years working for PMI, says he was smoking a pack a day until he switched to Iqos, his personal journey neatly echoing that of his company.PMI calls Iqos a heated tobacco or “heat-not-burn” device; it is part of a new class of products sitting between vapes and traditional cigarettes.

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There is a consensus that switching to vaping offers the best health benefits to smokers after quitting or using patches, gum, or prescription drugs that lower cravings. Heated tobacco products release fewer harmful chemicals than cigarette smoke, but more than e-cigarettes do. Neither product has been around long enough for experts to be sure that reducing the levels of toxic chemicals also reduces overall rates of disease.

Some studies have also found that Iqos emits higher levels than cigarettes of other chemicals, but not the ones known to be dangerous. Although these are not toxic in the short term, it is not known if they could have health effects over a longer period of use.

PMI said its testing on Iqos showed the concentrations of these chemicals “are below the level of toxicological concern.”Some question why, if PMI wants to be “part of the solution” to smoking, it chose to heavily promote a heated tobacco product rather than an e-cigarette, when the potential health benefits of the latter are widely considered greater.

The answer comes down to economics, said Erik Bloomquist, a tobacco industry analyst. PMI could more easily adapt its cigarette manufacturing to make Heatsticks, while the profit margins for many e-cigarettes, especially those where users change the liquids and heating coils themselves, are miniscule.

Iqos was first launched in Japan, where e-cigarettes are banned, and within 4 years, gained nearly 16% of its overall tobacco market. Experts believe its introduction has led to falling cigarette sales. Iqos has also been a hit in South Korea, Russia, and Italy.

PMI says that 10 million smokers have switched to Iqos since it was launched. Calantzopoulos’ new ambition is to switch 40 million smokers from cigarettes to PMI’s alternative products by 2025. He describes the situation as a win-win: better for the smoker, and better for PMI, which can get better profit margins from Iqos if it is subject to lower taxes than cigarettes.

The company’s executives are working hard all around the world trying to persuade governments not to tax Iqos like a cigarette, to the chagrin of the WHO, which has advised against such a concession.PMI said Iqos helps smokers, who find vapes unappealing, give up cigarettes. “What is most important is that adult smokers have access to a product that they are able to switch to and completely quit smoking cigarettes.” The company said it lobbied governments “because products like e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products should not be banned.”

Calantzopoulos will be wary of the backlash faced by Juul, the maker of America’s most popular e-cigarette, over accusations its early marketing appealed to teenagers. The company denies it ever targeted children but has since faced congressional hearings, federal investigations, and hundreds of lawsuits.

It is against this backdrop that Calantzopoulos maintains he only wants Iqos targeted at the world’s 1.1 billion adult smokers. However, a small Italian study found nearly half of people who had tried the product had never smoked.PMI appears to have at times recruited occasional or social smokers to promote its devices. “I don’t smoke often, maybe only when I am at a party or having a glass of wine with some friends, but I was interested to find out about this device because it didn't seem like just another electronic cigarette,” Gabriele Gzimailaite, a London fashion blogger told her readers in November 2017.

Gzimailaite, who has 120,000 Instagram followers, had been flown out to Milan by PMI for an Iqos party, where she posed against an Iqos-branded wall and posted pictures of the device. Read more: Rappler »

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