The CEO of one of the world’s biggest tobacco brands, Philip Morris International (PMI), now says that it will stop selling cigarettes in the UK within a decade and regulators should ban them entirely—though there’s a big, smelly caveat.
As flagged by Business Insider, PMI CEO Jacek Olczak told the Mail on Sunday that the company plans to “leave smoking behind,” adding that “ten years from now maximum, you can completely solve the problem of smoking.” Olczak, as well as PMI chairman André Calantzopoulos, told the Telegraph that PMI now supports an outright ban as part of the UK government’s plan to eliminate tobacco smoking by the year 2030.
“We can see the world without cigarettes,” Olczak told the Telegraph. “And actually, the sooner it happens, the better it is for everyone.” Calantzopoulos compared the issue to switching to alternative energy and electric cars, saying a cigarette ban “could be one solution—but this is not enough.”
Calantzopoulos claimed to the Telegraph that many smokers believe cigarette alternatives are less dangerous than smoking and that the UK government should educate smokers to make “a choice of smoke-free alternatives” (which it is already doing, for the record). The caveat, of course, is that after manufacturing countless billions of cowboy killers, PMI is extremely well-positioned to cash in on that “smoke-free” market with its own horrible product.
PMI is separate from Virginia-based tobacco company Philip Morris USA, a subsidiary of Altria, which manufactures Marlboro cigarettes and other famous brands like Virginia Slims stateside. PMI split from its U.S. counterpart in 2008 in response to investor pressure and as a way to shield itself from lawsuits brought by U.S. smokers. Since then, it has pivoted to claiming the future of tobacco is in alternatives to cigarettes, such as its IQOS product, which heats a plug of tobacco to release fumes without actually burning it.
PMI has marketed the IQOS device as though it is a safer alternative to smoking or vaping (albeit only in a limited manner in the U.S., thanks to Food and Drug Administration regulations). While the IQOS device may emit fewer toxic chemicals compared to cigarettes, the Atlantic reported in 2019 that many health experts are skeptical that “heat-not-burn” products are actually safer than traditional smoking. That’s especially so given the tobacco giant’s decades of effort to suppress science linking smoking to cancer and other lung diseases. In 2017, Reuters reported on irregularities in PMI-backed research the company cited while lobbying health authorities to approve IQOS. The report also detailed how PMI was pushing the device primarily in countries already seeing long-term decreases in cigarette smoking.
A 2018 review in the Tobacco Control journal found that 20 out of 31 studies on heat-not-burn devices were, at that point, funded by tobacco companies including PMI. Chris Bostic, deputy director of public policy at Action on Smoking and Health, told the Atlantic those studies could be dismissed entirely and PMI’s claims to be fighting for a smoke-free future is “an absurd PR stunt.” (At that time, in 2019, PMI was not advocating for a ban on cigarettes.)
Healthline reported in April 2021 that two recent studies published in Thorax found evidence that heat-not-burn tobacco products may be almost as dangerous as cigarettes, causing endothelial dysfunction and damage to the lining of blood vessels, and that claims that the product can aid in cessation may be exaggerated, as users of the devices may be less likely to quit than conventional smokers. In another 2021 study published in the Harm Reduction Journal, researchers found that interviews with 30 current and former IQOS users who had smoked or quit in the last two years showed they generally believed the device to be “less harmful than smoking but not risk-free, although there was great uncertainty.”
According to the Guardian, anti-tobacco activists and scientists have urged the public not to buy PMI’s marketing as it tries to pay its way into lung health-related arms of the pharmaceutical industry, such as by making a $1.38 billion+ (£1 billion) offer for asthma inhaler manufacturer Vectura and $820 million buying Fertin Pharma, which makes nicotine gum. In 2019, PMI went so far as to launch a life insurance company called Reviti, which would offer discounts to smokers who switched to cigarette alternatives like IQOS.
Cancer Research executive director Ian Walker told the Telegraph not to trust PMI as it postures itself “as part of the solution to a smoke-free world, all the while continuing to aggressively sell and promote lethal cigarettes globally.”
“The industry has a long history of subverting tobacco control policies for its own financial gain, both in the UK and globally, and so protecting public health from its vested interests is crucial,” Walker added.
Updated: 7/27/2021, 2:30 p.m. ET: A previous version of this post referred to IQOS as both a heat-not-burn device and as an e-cigarette. According to Joshua L. Karelitz, a posdoctoral scholar at the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center’s Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention Program, public health researchers use the term e-cigarette to refer to devices which electronically heat a liquid to create an aerosol for a user to inhale, but which do not contain actual tobacco. The IQOS does, and we’ve updated our coverage to reflect this distinction.