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IQOS by Philip Morris
October 6, 2023
7 min to read

IQOS: How Does It Work and Where Can You Find One?

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Jim McDonald

For some people who smoke, vaping doesn’t seem to work well as a replacement. It may simply be an experience too unlike smoking for them to get used to. After all, no vaping product actually tastes like burning tobacco. And with vaping, there is no defined beginning or end to the experience: smokers light a cigarette and then put it out a few minutes later, but with vaping it can just go on and on.

Tobacco companies have worked hard to come up with products that replicate smoking without causing all the harms of inhaling combusted tobacco, and they think they’ve accomplished that with modern heated tobacco products (HTPs), which are also sometimes called heat-not-burn (HNB) tobacco products.

The best-known of these is IQOS, which is sold in many countries by Philip Morris International (PMI). The device has been available since 2014, and has been successful in converting large numbers of smokers—especially in Japan, where IQOS and other HTPs have contributed significantly to a huge decline in cigarette sales. According to PMI, millions of smokers around the world have switched completely from cigarette smoking to IQOS.

Outside of the United States, PMI now sells a variety of IQOS-branded HTPs, including the IQOS ILUMA and BONDS BY IQOS, which use different tobacco stick refills than the original IQOS devices. In Europe, PMI has also used the IQOS brand name for other reduced-risk products, most notably beginner e-liquid pod vapes like VEEV. That no longer seems to be the case.

Fun fact: a lot of people believe that “IQOS” is an acronym for “I Quit Ordinary Smoking.” It’s not. PMI says the name is a meaningless term, “a brand name, created to denote an innovative product.”

IQOS and HeatSticks Picture Gallery


Pictures of the IQOS from the gallery free to use only when crediting image to (Vaping360)

IQOS availability in the U.S.

After receiving U.S. marketing authorization for IQOS in 2019 through the FDA's premarket tobacco application (PMTA) pathway, PMI and then-U.S. partner Altria launched the product in several American test markets that same year. (In 2020, IQOS also earned FDA’s modified risk (MRTP) designation, and later that year the FDA gave PMI the okay to sell its updated IQOS 3.0 device. In 2023, three more HeatSticks refills were authorized by the FDA.)

PMI had licensed American IQOS sales to Altria, but after patent disputes with British American Tobacco led to a 2021 International Trade Commission ruling forcing imported IQOS devices off the U.S. market, PMI decided in 2022 to buy back U.S. sales rights from Altria. PMI had already announced plans to begin manufacturing the device in U.S. production facilities.

PMI now plans to sell IQOS in the U.S. on its own, probably beginning in 2024 when sales rights revert from Altria. In November 2022, PMI gained control of Swedish Match, the snus and nicotine pouch manufacturer that has existing U.S. sales and distribution infrastructure.


How does IQOS work?

IQOS and other HTPs use battery power to apply concentrated heat to a cigarette-like tube of ground tobacco mixed with vegetable glycerin (VG) to create a visible vapor. It’s not smoking, and it’s not exactly vaping. Proponents say it fills a gap between the two that makes it attractive to many smokers.

The basic IQOS kit consists of three pieces: a pocket charger, the device itself, and the small tobacco sticks heated by the device (called HEETS in most countries, but HeatSticks in PMI's FDA applications). The tobacco sticks come in a pack of 20, just like regular cigarettes. The IQOS is designed to simulate the experience of smoking a cigarette.

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The IQOS unit heats the tobacco to a precise temperature at which it vaporizes the tobacco but doesn’t combust. The result is much like the vapor you get using portable cannabis vaporizers like a PAX or Firefly, which also use conducted heat to extract the contents of plant material. However, the addition of VG creates more vapor than would be possible with tobacco alone.

The IQOS device, which PMI refers to as the “holder,” needs a four-minute charge in the case between each use. Once it’s charged, you insert a HEET (or HeatStick) in the device, and wait 20 seconds till it lights up and vibrates. Then you have 14 drags or six minutes—whichever comes first—before the process can be repeated. According to HTP manufacturers, the nicotine hit delivered by these devices is faster and more cigarette-like than vaping.

Like a vaping device, the IQOS produces no “side stream” vapor. It only emits vapor when it’s being inhaled. The tobacco sticks feel like cigarettes in the user’s mouth, and the flavor is supposed to be very close to a cigarette—and certainly nothing like vape flavors, not even tobacco-flavored vapes.

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To maintain peak performance of the ceramic heating elements, the IQOS holder must be cleaned after about 20 uses (or each pack of tobacco sticks). Because both parts of the device have lithium ion batteries, they will eventually lose capacity and have to be replaced.

During the period when Altria sold IQOS in the U.S., a starter package that included the IQOS device and 200 HeatSticks (10 packs of 20, like a carton of cigarettes) retailed for $80-100. It's unclear what the prices will be when PMI eventually relaunches IQOS.

Refills are about the same price as cigarettes, which makes sense because the company has already agreed that IQOS HeatSticks fit the American legal definition of cigarettes, and can be taxed as cigarettes. That means IQOS can’t compete with cigarettes on price—a huge disadvantage versus vaping products, which generally cost far less than cigarettes. (In September 2023, PMI announced the development of a new line of IQOS refills that contain no tobacco. The new product, called LEVIA, could change the tax picture for IQOS users in some countries.)


Who is IQOS for?

With its tobacco-filled, cigarette-like refills, IQOS (and the whole HTP category) is clearly aimed at cigarette smokers. From the flavor to the price of the tobacco stick refills, the product is built for people accustomed to buying and smoking cigarettes. The IQOS experience is defined by the conventions of cigarette smoking:

  • Tobacco stick refills are sold in packs of 20
  • They cost the same as cigarettes, including taxes
  • Each tobacco stick provides a defined number of puffs in a limited time period
  • Only plain tobacco and menthol flavors are authorized for U.S. sale
  • A used tobacco stick is similar to a cigarette butt
  • In some locations, HEETS or HeatSticks actually use the Marlboro name
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    Unlike IQOS, vaping products are designed to separate users from the experience of smoking. E-cigarettes don’t taste anything like smoke—not even tobacco-flavored ones—and you can find e-liquid in just about any flavor imaginable. Vaping products are varied; there are big, powerful mods and tiny, low-powered pods. You can choose to vape huge sub ohm-powered clouds or you can stealth vape and produce no visible vapor at all.

    All that doesn’t mean that vaping is necessarily better than using a heat-not-burn device like IQOS. It’s just a far different experience. We’ve always known that there is a significant segment of the smoking population that just doesn’t like vaping. For whatever reason, the experience that vapers have come to love doesn’t strike a chord for them. For those people, heated tobacco products like IQOS could be just the ticket.

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    Jim McDonald

    Vaping since: 12 years

    Favorite products:

    Favorite flavors: RY4-style tobaccos, fruits

    Expertise in: Political and legal challenges, tobacco control haters, moral panics

    Jim McDonald

    Smokers created vaping without help from the tobacco industry or anti-smoking crusaders, and I believe vapers have the right to continue innovating to help themselves. My goal is to provide clear, honest information about the challenges vaping faces from lawmakers, regulators, and brokers of disinformation. I’m a member of the CASAA board, but my opinions aren’t necessarily CASAA’s, and vice versa. You can find me on Twitter @whycherrywhy

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