For some people who smoke, vaping doesn’t seem to work well as a replacement for cigarettes. It may be just too different from 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 called heat-not-burn (HNB) tobacco products.
The best-known of these is IQOS, which is sold in dozens of countries by Switzerland-based 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 large drop in cigarette sales. According to PMI, millions of smokers have switched completely to IQOS.
In Europe, PMI has also begun using the IQOS brand name for other reduced-risk products, most notably beginner pod vapes. The VEEV is an e-liquid-based vape, and has no connection to the original IQOS HTP device except the name.
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.”
Pictures of the IQOS from the gallery free to use only when crediting image to http://vaping360.com/iqos-phillip-morris/ (Vaping360)
Now IQOS is being rolled out in the United States, after receiving FDA marketing approval through the Premarket Tobacco Application (PMTA) pathway and later through the Modified Risk Tobacco Product (MRTP) route. PMI received approval to sell the device, charger case, and one tobacco- and two menthol-flavored “HeatSticks.”
PMI has licensed U.S. sales to Altria. (PMI and Altria were once a single company—Philip Morris—but split in 2008. Altria operates strictly in the U.S., while PMI sells many of the same products, like Marlboro cigarettes, in the rest of the world.)
So far Altria has adopted a very cautious approach to marketing the HTP device. It has only been sold in three test markets—Atlanta, Richmond, and Charlotte, NC—and the company has announced it will be available in just four more cities through 2021. So far, the IQOS device is being sold only in dedicated IQOS stores, although the refills—called Marlboro HeatSticks—are also sold in convenience stores and other cigarette outlets.
The slow rollout in the U.S. is probably due partly to the coronavirus epidemic and partly to the FDA. After receiving approval for the original IQOS model in early 2019—two years after submitting a PMTA—it took till December 2020 for the agency to give PMI the okay to sell the updated IQOS 3.0.
IQOS and other HTPs use battery power to apply concentrated heat to a cigarette-like tube of tobacco that is treated with vegetable glycerin 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.
IQOS essentially consists of three pieces; a pocket charger, the device itself, and HeatSticks (called HEETS in some countries), the disposable mini-cigarettes 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 at which it vaporizes the tobacco but doesn’t combust. The result is much like the vapor you get using a portable cannabis vaporizer like a PAX or Firefly, 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.
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 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 much 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 HeatSticks 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.
To maintain peak performance of the ceramic heating elements, the IQOS holder must be cleaned after about 20 uses (or each pack of HeatSticks). Because both parts of the device have lithium ion batteries, they will eventually lose capacity and have to be replaced.
Altria is apparently selling a starter package that includes the IQOS device and 200 HeatSticks (10 packs of 20, like a carton of cigarettes) for between $80 and $100, although it’s very difficult to pin down the pricing, since they don’t advertise the price online.
Refills are about the same price as cigarettes, which makes sense because the company has already agreed that HeatSticks fit the legal definition of cigarettes, and can be taxed the same way. That means IQOS can’t compete with cigarettes on price—a huge disadvantage versus vaping products, which generally cost far less than cigarettes.
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 HeatSticks, the product is built for people accustomed to buying and smoking cigarettes. The IQOS experience is defined by the conventions of cigarette smoking:
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.
While some vaping industry people are worried that IQOS and other new tobacco industry products will hurt the vaping market, it’s probably more likely that they’ll help it. The price of IQOS will push many HTP users to look for a more economical way to avoid cigarettes. And growing awareness of low-risk nicotine products in general can’t help but raise vaping’s profile too.
We already know from the experience in Japan that IQOS can help people quit smoking. Advocates for tobacco harm reduction (THR) say that between vaping, HTPs, and other low-risk nicotine products like snus, a huge portion of the estimated seven million annual worldwide premature deaths from smoking may be avoided in the future.