Africa: Why This Major Cigarette Company is Going 'Smoke-Free'

10 March 2020
interview

In the past few years, new ways of consuming tobacco and nicotine have gained ground in many parts of the globe where regulators, scientists, policymakers, manufacturers and consumer associations are engaged in sometimes heated debates about the dangers and/or merits of the products. The African continent has been largely absent in this debate despite a growing number users of the new products. In January, AllAfrica's Sebastien Satigui spoke to Dr. Mora Gilchrist, Philip Morris International's Vice President of Strategic and Scientific Communications to find out what her company is trying to achieve with a "smoke-free world".

Dr Gilchrist, you were recently in Davos where the most powerful and influential leaders of the world gathered but you did not attend the sessions of the World Economic Forum (WEF) What took you there?

A new conversation on smoking is urgently needed—all voices must be at the table—just as is done to tackle other major global health/environmental challenges.

While we are not part of the WEF, we wanted to have the opportunity to be heard by the decision-makers and opinion leaders who were in attendance, as well as those following the event from around the world. They need to hear the arguments and science that can help address a global public health issue and make a difference for hundreds of millions of adult smokers in the world.

We were open to them asking questions, understanding the facts around a smoke-free future and asked them to consider how best to make decisions that are transparent, science-based and people-centric. It is these decision-makers who need to recognize the value of risk-proportionate regulation.

Why would a tobacco company like Philip Morris want to stop selling cigarettes? What is behind this incredible decision, and why now?

Because it's the right thing to do.

For years, the industry has been asked to develop less harmful products. Today, advancements in technology and science have made this a reality. Our commitment to smoke-free alternatives is no passing whim, but the result of many years of careful deliberation, backed up by a substantial R&D program. Over the last decade, we've spent more than U.S. $7 billion in research, product and commercial development, production capacity, scientific substantiation and studies on adult smoker understanding. We want to switch at least 40 million men and women, who would otherwise continue to smoke, to our smoke-free products by 2025. By then, we want smoke-free products to be at least 40 percent of our net revenue.

Let's be candid. Is it all about market share and profit as data shows a steady decline in cigarette sales globally?

On the contrary, based on population trends, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates there will be more than 1 billion smokers by 2025, about the same number as today. Instead of doing nothing, we have decided to make a dramatic change. We are the only tobacco company whose efforts are squarely focused on replacing cigarettes with smoke-free products as soon as possible, and we are fundamentally transforming our organization to meet this ambitious objective. This is the boldest step our company has ever taken.

You speak about change, but you continue to sell cigarettes that still kill millions of people ...

We know that if we stop selling cigarettes overnight, it will accomplish nothing from the perspective of public health. Globally, Philip Morris International (PMI) has a market share of approximately 15 percent, which represents about 150 million men and women who smoke our cigarette brands. If those brands suddenly became unavailable, our competitors—both the lawful and the illicit ones—would quickly step in to meet the demand. Our decision would do nothing to change the desire for cigarettes, and people would continue to smoke.

Instead, we are committed to continuing to lead a massive industry transformation, leveraging the resources of our cigarette business to support the efforts to switch the millions of men and women that would otherwise continue to smoke to smoke-free alternatives.

A good example of what we're trying to achieve can be seen in Japan. A recent study done by researchers for the American Cancer Society looked at why cigarette sales started to decline five times faster in Japan after we introduced our leading heated tobacco product.*
They concluded that the only factor that could explain this increase in the rate of decline was the introduction of this product. This is unprecedented. No regulatory measure to date has ever achieved such a rapid, positive change.

What is the evidence that your new smoke-free products are not harmful, and why should we believe you?

We're very clear that our smoke-free products are not risk-free. They contain nicotine, which is addictive but is not the primary cause of smoking-related disease. Decades of science show that it is the burning—or the combustion—of tobacco that causes the vast majority of the harmful and potentially harmful constituents in tobacco smoke. This is why the science behind our smoke-free products focused on eliminating combustion.

Rigorous science is at the core of our development and assessment of smoke-free products. We set ourselves high standards, and our scientific methods are inspired by the pharmaceutical industry. We have conducted over 340 studies and share our scientific findings publicly. We also encourage others to review our work. Over 30 independent studies and five government reports confirm important elements of our findings. In April last year, the U.S. FDA authorized our heated-tobacco product for sale in the U.S., deeming it "appropriate for the protection of public health".

The totality of evidence shows that switching completely to our leading heated tobacco product—though not risk-free—is a much better choice than continuing to smoke.

Our findings to date:

  • Our leading heated tobacco product does not burn tobacco, it generates no combustion and no smoke.
  • Our leading heated tobacco product emits an aerosol that has on average 95 percent lower levels of harmful chemicals compared to those of a reference cigarette (3R4F).
  • Our leading heated tobacco product has an average reduction in toxicity of 90 to 90 percent compared to the levels measured for a reference cigarette (3R4F).
  • Clinical findings from a six-month study on clinical risk markers indicated that switching to our leading heated tobacco product is a better choice than continued smoking.
  • Our leading heated tobacco product is not a source of second-hand smoke. According to indoor air-quality tests, the aerosol does not adversely affect indoor air quality.
  • Our research shows negligible interest in our leading heated tobacco product among people who have never smoked or people who have quit smoking.

All this is not a reality for African countries, what are your plans for the continent?

To date, we have launched our leading heated tobacco product* in 52 markets around the globe, including South Africa. Around the world, nearly 10 million people have stopped smoking and switched to this product. Already 18,000 men and women who would otherwise have continued to smoke have switched in South Africa.

Our goal is to help accelerate the end of smoking worldwide, including in Africa. The best choice is to quit altogether, but every adult smoker in the world who doesn't should have access to accurate information about less harmful alternatives. We are committed to doing our part by developing products and business models that make scientifically substantiated smoke-free products accessible to all adult smokers regardless of where they live.

* "Our leading heated tobacco product" refers to IQOS .

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