A customer at an IQOS store in Tokyo in 2018.
Photo: Eugene Hoshiko (AP)

The Food and Drug Administration has cleared for sale tobacco giant Phillip Morris International (PMI) and its sister company Altria’s baffling, “heat not burn” iQOS dry tobacco vaporizer on Tuesday, Bloomberg reported, handing Big Tobacco a major win despite there not actually being any evidence it is safer than traditional cigarettes.

iQOS is essentially a stick of tobacco in a Juul-like, but bulkier, device that heats up and releases nicotine-laden vapor when used. It’s made by PMI, among the world’s biggest cigarette manufacturers, and will be marketed and sold in the U.S. by Altria, which is also one of the world’s biggest cigarette manufacturers and recently took a massive, $13 billion stake in Juul.

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According to Bloomberg, the FDA wrote in a press release that it had “determined that authorizing these products for the U.S. market is appropriate for the protection of the public health because, among several key considerations, the products produce fewer or lower levels of some toxins than combustible cigarettes.” The New York Times added that the FDA found the device would not appeal to young people (good thing Altria also owns 35 percent of Juul!) and that it would be regulated under the same rules as cigarettes. A separate decision on whether to allow the companies to market the device as less harmful than regular cigarettes remains pending.

“The F.D.A.’s decision to authorize iQOS in the U.S. is an important step forward for the approximately 40 million American men and women who smoke,” PMI CEO André Calantzopoulos, who we will again point out oversees one of the world’s biggest cigarette manufacturers and has no incentive to encourage people to actually cease using nicotine, told the Times. “Some will quit. Most won’t, and for them iQOS offers a smoke-free alternative to continued smoking.”

PMI claims on its website that since iQOS technically does not burn the tobacco but simply heats it, “the levels of harmful chemicals are significantly reduced compared to cigarette smoke.” As Gizmodo recently reported, independent scrutiny of these assertions has not been encouraging:

According to one study that attempted to fact-check PMI’s safety assertions, 56 harmful or potentially harmful constituents (HPHCs) tested higher in iQOS than traditional cigarettes, some astronomically so. Dr. Stanton Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Research and Control, has also written that iQOS is “likely as bad as cigarettes” and “generates significant pulmonary harm.”

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Incredibly, PMI has launched a life insurance product called Reviti and has been promoting it with promises of half-off premiums for policyholders who quit smoking, but 25 percent discounts for those who stick with iQOS for three months or more. (Those who use other smoking-cessation products will get a 2.5 percent discount.)

This could be interpreted as a cynical attempt to sell dubious life insurance to people who are dying from PMI’s tobacco products while encouraging them to switch to another PMI tobacco product. But a spokesperson for the company told Gizmodo, “Reviti was launched because we believe that there is currently a gap in the market for life insurance policies for people who smoke and wish to quit tobacco and nicotine altogether or switch to scientifically substantiate reduced risk alternatives to smoking.”

As CNN noted, less than a month ago former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb—who aggressively tried to rein in the tobacco and vaping industries—left the agency, and there has been some concern that in his wake the agency would bow to a backlash the New York Times described as mostly driven by “some Republicans in Congress” and a “coalition of influential conservative groups.” While Gottlieb did embrace the idea that some vaping products can work as smoking cessation or harm reduction tools for adults, Barron’s reported last month that his departure was seen as a good sign for iQOS’s odds.

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Anti-smoking advocacy groups are not happy about the FDA’s decision, to put it lightly.

“Inhaling chemicals and toxins into one’s lungs always poses risks,” American Lung Association vice president Erika Sward told the Times. “Lungs are on the front line—and have been showing immediate results of being exposed to chemicals—whether in the workplace, using tobacco products or outdoor air pollution.”

“People opposed to it will point out rightly that it’s not safe,” former Centers for Disease Control official and tobacco expert Michael Eriksen told the Washington Post. “People on the other side will point out that it’s less harmful than smoking and could be a good alternative. The linchpin is whether these devices actually lead people to stop smoking... If people in the U.S. end up using devices like this in addition to smoking, it would have been better for them to have never bought it at all.”

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[Bloomberg]