The IQOS is coming...
Is vaping the best way to get smokers off cigarettes? Could some other technology do the job more effectively? And is the tobacco industry in the best position to create products that successfully compete with cigarettes?
IQOS, a new device being marketed as a reduced-risk tobacco product, has been launched with fanfare in the U.K. by Philip Morris International (PMI). IQOS is a so-called heat-not-burn (HNB) product that applies concentrated heat to a leaf tobacco mixture and extracts the contents as vapor.
The multinational corporation has been selling the device in several countries since 2014, most notably Japan, where PMI claims to have captured two percent of the cigarette market. The original Philip Morris company split in 2008 into Altria Group Inc. in the U.S., and PMI in the rest of the world. Altria will sell IQOS in the U.S. if it receives FDA approval. Altria and PMI are best known for selling Marlboro cigarettes.
PMI submitted a “modified-risk tobacco product” application (MRTP) to the FDA recently. Modified risk is a designation no tobacco product has yet been granted. The company also intends to file a premarket tobacco application (PMTA) early next year. Should IQOS be approved as a modified-risk product, it will be allowed to make claims about relative risk that no vapor product can, despite the widely held belief that e-cigarettes pose little or no health risk.
How does IQOS work? Who is it for?
IQOS essentially consists of three pieces; a pocket charger, the eGo-shaped device itself, and HEETS, the disposable “sticks” which come in a pack of 20. The sticks contain a mixture of tobacco, VG, nicotine, and flavorings, and are designed to simulate the experience of smoking a cigarette.
The IQOS unit heats the tobacco to a precise temperature that vaporizes but (supposedly) doesn’t combust, and produces vapor. The result is much like the vapor you get using a portable “dry herb” vaporizer like Pax, which also uses conducted heat to extract the contents of plant material. However, the addition of VG creates more vapor than would be possible with tobacco alone.
As with those “other” vaporizers, after loading the device with a HEET, you must wait for it to reach peak heat level. The wait might be a major annoyance for many cigarette smokers. As may be the cleaning. The ceramic heating elements in the IQOS need to be cleaned fairly regularly, and performance declines if you forget.
IQOS is selling in the U.K. at launch for about $56, and a pack of 20 HEETS is another $10. At that price it may not create a lot of impulse purchases from low-income smokers, but they probably have the hipster curiosity market wrapped up. And they’re getting lots of free publicity from harm reduction advocates.
Brian Fojtik, Senior Fellow at the Reason Foundation, has used an IQOS, and generously gave me some notes about his experience. Fojtik has been fighting for vaping for years. As the former head of external affairs at NJoy, he and Pamela Gorman (now executive director of SFATA) helped to fight off restrictive state laws and taxes again and again, and taught many of the new vape industry’s beginning activists how to do their jobs.
He’s an honest guy, and also a serious vaper. But he’s also a believer in all kinds of harm reduction products, so he was interested in HNB technology. I knew he’d give me straight answers about his time with IQOS, and let the chips fall where they may.
“It tastes very much like a cigarette,” he said. “When you insert the tobacco-containing stick and the device heats the rolled tobacco, you have a limited opportunity to use the device (limited by time or puff, whichever threshold is reached first) that emulates the experience of having a cigarette.”
“The stick looks and has a mouthfeel like a mini-cigarette,” Fojtik explained. “So it’s like the experience of smoking versus that of vaping, which we’ve learned many people approach differently than they did cigarettes. You don’t produce as much vapor or aerosol as the amount of smoke you would exhale from a cigarette, and there is no visible appearance of passive smoke/vapor/aerosol from the device other than what is exhaled from the user, unlike a burning cigarette. I like nicotine. The IQOS does seem to deliver nicotine in an impactful way.”
David O’Reilly, the scientific director for British American Tobacco (BAT), says HNB products deliver a much quicker and more authentic cigarette-like hit of nicotine than vapor. Which is probably a good thing for smokers who can’t make vaping work for them. But it may be a bad thing for experimenters, who may find themselves hooked more quickly.
“As with using a vapor product, it takes a little while to learn,” explained Brian Fojtik. “It took me a while to get used to it. Now, like a vape, it’s pretty easy. Takeaway is that this technology is best shared person to person or at least with video help, etc. It’s not like a pack of cigarettes that you just buy, light, inhale.”
Since the sales model for IQOS in the U.S. will probably be centered on convenience stores and gas stations, how will the issue of the learning curve be approached? Big Tobacco has never tried to sell products that require instruction. Is this being aimed at vapers, who are used to investing some time and practice to their devices?
“I don’t think most people who have quit smoking completely and now vape exclusively would be nearly as drawn to this product as smokers and dual users. If vapers struggle and can’t control an urge to return to smoking, this option certainly would provide a significantly less harmful alternative.” In other words, HNB is more like smoking than vaping is like smoking, and IQOS probably isn’t aimed at vapers. Will smokers be willing to invest the time IQOS demands?
“I can definitely see why IQOS or similar heat-not-burn products would appeal to a segment of smokers or dual users in transition,” said Fojtik. “Vape doesn’t work for everyone on the first or second try.” That’s a good point, and one committed vapers often forget. For some smokers, vaping hasn’t worked at all. We sometimes tend to dismiss that, saying they haven’t found the right e-cig yet — but what if the right vapor product for some smokers doesn’t exist?
Modified risk is a game for the big boys
PMI claims that IQOS delivers just 10 percent of the dangerous chemicals of combustible cigarettes. That’s the basis of the company’s claim to modified risk, which is purportedly backed by more than two million pages of evidence. I’m curious about how heating tobacco leaf to 500 degrees Fahrenheit avoids producing carbon monoxide, one of the most dangerous constituents in tobacco smoke.
After filing their MRTP application, PMI and Altria can expect to wait a while to hear back. FDA will notify them within six months if the app is in order, but after that it’s all a guessing game. Only one previous modified risk application has been filed, by snus manufacturer Swedish Match. Snus has a track record of causing no provable harm and not being a gateway to smoking, and still the application has been in limbo for years.
The FDA’s Tobacco products Scientific Advisory Council (TPSAC) advised against approval in April 2015, and while the FDA usually follows TPSAC recommendations, it hasn’t acted yet on the snus proposal. The Swedish Match MRTP application was over 100,000 pages long and cost more than $10 million, according to Bill Godshall.
Swedish Match is also the only company to date to have a premarket tobacco application (PMTA) approved. The company received a marketing order for eight of its snus products in November 2015. Most analysts believe approval of an MRTP application is far more difficult than a PMTA. Both pathways are probably beyond the reach of independent vape companies.
PMI claims IQOS has already converted almost a million smokers worldwide. Whether they know with certainty that all those users have permanently switched to IQOS isn’t clear, but according to The Street “Philip Morris has invested more than $3 billion in the research and development of ‘reduced risk’ alternatives to cigarettes.” (Presumably that includes money spent on their truly awful MarkTen cigalikes.)
And this is just the beginning. All the big boys in the combustible world are developing similar products. You can expect a flurry of competitors to IQOS to arrive soon.
Big Tobacco wants you!
Is IQOS a serious attempt to offer a reduced-harm alternative to smokers? Or is it a cynical ploy to grab publicity and goodwill, including earning applause from harm reduction proponents? It’s hard to say. If they really intended this to strike at the heart of their own combustible business, why did they wait till after the August 8 deeming deadline to launch, guaranteeing a delay in marketing of somewhere between six months and many years? And do they honestly believe smokers will buy a $50 device and then also spend cigarette-equivalent prices for HEETS? Is that a serious plan for success?
It’s somewhat surprising to see so many vaping proponents latch onto the IQOS train. Forget the ancient history of Big Tobacco’s lies in the 1970’s and 80’s. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theory buff to recognize that the tobacco industry hasn’t exactly been helpful recently to the growth of vaping. The tobacco companies have been active all along in state legislatures pushing taxes on e-liquid. And it was RJ Reynolds whose comments to the FDA on the deeming rule in 2014 gave that agency the blueprint for how to choke the independent open systems out of the market.
Which isn’t to say that IQOS can’t be a huge breakthrough for tobacco harm reduction. Maybe it’ll catch on with smokers in a big way. Still, watching PMI’s calculated poke at the market is a little nauseating. They waited to launch in Britain and the U.S. till the TPD and deeming regs were in place, the independent industry was wracked with uncertainty and fear, and the public controversy about vaping would maximize confusion between HNB and e-cigarettes.
In the U.S. anyway, they’re now able to step in and use their core strengths to leave the vapor industry in the dust. Who can work within the complex world of tobacco products compliance better than Altria? Who was able to wrangle Matt Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids to help write regulations that created a legal duopoly for Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds?
While vapor companies struggle to meet the demands of proper labeling and ingredient listing, Altria is prepared with billions in research to show their reduced-risk device is worthy of approval. And the FDA listens to Altria — because they play the same game. The FDA writes the fine print, and Altria has an army of attorneys who know how to read it and respond.
If Altria thinks it can make money selling HNB, it has hundreds of thousands of sales outlets to fill with shiny new devices and HEETS. They can snap their fingers and every convenience store, gas station, and corner grocery will clear four shelf-feet of prime real estate that stares every smoker in the face when they stop in for a pack of Marlboros.
Their financial might, lobbying power, regulatory know-how, and absolute strength in distribution set Altria up to spread IQOS through the retail smoking world while vape shops and online e-cig vendors keep failing every day. So why did they wait till after August 8 to make their move?
“We certainly see a future where Philip Morris no longer will be selling cigarettes in the market,” Martin Inkster, managing director of Philip Morris UK and Ireland, told Reuters. Yeah, and the CEO at Ford sees a future with flying cars. The future’s easy to talk about. Is that really their plan?
These people don’t fear the TPD or the deeming regulations because, in the end, it doesn’t matter to PMI or Altria if vaping and HNB both sail merrily off a retail cliff. Philip Morris has a license to sell cigarettes forever, and that’s as good as minting your own money. They aren’t giving it up. Want to invest in a sure thing? Buy Altria stock.