Can Philip Morris International's smoke-free dream succeed in South East Asia?

PMI remains hopeful that its e-cigarettes project, named Iqos, a branded smoke-free heated tobacco unit, will succeed.

As Philip Morris International (PMI) continues on its mission to provide better choices to people who smoke, it faces a major roadblock in Asia Pacific countries that have banned electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes).

While South Korea and Japan are its biggest markets for e-cigarettes in APAC, governments in South East Asian countries like Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong have banned the use of these handheld electronic devices, with Malaysia looking to go down the same path.

Despite these restrictions, PMI remains hopeful that its e-cigarettes project, named Iqos, a branded smoke-free heated tobacco unit, will succeed and help the company stop selling cigarettes altogether.

At a global press conference today (23 Oct) in Tokyo, PMI launched the new Iqos 3 and Iqos 3 multi, which it claims integrate consumer insights and feedback it has received to improve the design and user experience while maintaining signature taste, sensory attributes and ritual of smoking cigarettes.

The new versions aim to further encourage a growing number of smokers to switch as PMI claims Iqos has helped almost six million adult smokers quit cigarettes, with more than half of those in Japan.

“Our dream was to create a better alternative for smokers, and Iqos has made this dream a reality; it’s a revolution for the 1.1 billion people who smoke,” said André Calantzopoulos, PMI’s chief executive officer at the event.

“Iqos 3 and Iqos 3 multi deliver significant improvement and innovation and mark another step toward convincing all men and women who would otherwise continue to smoke to switch to smoke-free alternatives. Iqos consumers know that this product changes many things in their lives—we thank them, and we thank Japan for leading this positive change.”

However, with this alternative not available to people in the aforementioned SEA countries, Calantzopoulos suggested that the government of these countries that banned e-cigarettes still struggle with the question of whether they should allow better alternatives to cigarettes in the market.

He added that governments have a responsibility to evaluate whether better alternatives should exist, assess the new product and thoroughly examine its benefits, and treat their citizens as adults and give them the information and access to the product.

“I think we have to be very logical here because if a better product exists for consumers, the question is, why these consumers should not have access to this product and information?” he asked, in response to The Drum’s question during the Q&A on whether PMI is still keen to stop selling cigarettes in these SEA countries.

“If this product is not available, what alternatives do people have than continuing to smoke cigarettes? Yes, we can dream of a world where suddenly everyone quits smoking. But for people who are concern about their health, what should we do?”

Calantzopoulos also pointed out that in many other product categories, companies are introducing alternatives. He gave an example of solar panels, which might not have any zero effects on the environment, but is still better than burning coal.

“None of this product has zero effect. Sometimes the discussions that people in public health have is 'Ok, I will allow alternative cigarettes if there are zero risks'. If zero risks, it means zero taste and nicotine. Nobody will buy our products,” he said.

“Sometimes, people are very emotional about cigarettes and we should stop these emotions, and have conversations about this because people around the world deserve it.”

“We will do everything we can to convince governments, like the government of Singapore. I think that as the product expands and the categories grow around the world because the benefits are clear, governments, like the government of Singapore, which is a very reasonable government in general, will also reconsider their decision.”

Conversations with the government

PMI is keen to stress the development of Iqos is based on science and its scientific assessment program is based on longstanding practices of the pharmaceutical industry and is in line with U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidance.

It claims that Iqos produces an aerosol that contains on average 90% lower levels of harmful chemicals than cigarette smoke and the totality of PMI’s preclinical and clinical evidence indicates that switching completely to Iqos presents less risk of harm than continued smoking.

PMI also argues evidence shows that Iqos does not negatively affect indoor air quality and on average, 70 to 80% of Iqos users have quit cigarettes, which it claims makes Iqos the ‘most compelling smoke-free alternative’ in the market.

These studies were carried out at its research and development facility at Science Park II in Singapore, where PMI has done all its non-clinical studies for the past decade.

According to Manuel Peitsch, chief science officer at PMI, all of the non-clinical studies for the Iqos that PMI has submitted to the FDA were performed in Singapore, which ironically, has banned the import of novelty tobacco products, distribution of sales and recently, a ban of use in February this year.

He revealed the team in Singapore is hoping to be in contact with the country’s Economic Development Board and Ministry of Health (MOH), as they are trying to provide the government agencies with the scientific information that PMI has collected and submitted to the FDA, so that it can eventually have an open dialogue about the ‘problematic decreasing’ of alternatives to cigarettes in Singapore.

The Drum has contacted MOH for their comments and updates on their discussions with PMI.

“We respect the decision of the Singapore government but remain hopeful that their views on smoke-free products may change in the future, based on their long-standing commitment to science and innovation. We remain hopeful of the opportunity to share our science with the government as it develops," he adds.

Just yesterday, PMI began a new ‘smoke-free’ £2m awareness campaign in the UK. The £2m investment has been derided as nothing more than “PR puff” by health campaigners.

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