In recent months, Philip Morris International has been claiming it wants to lead the push to a smoke free world and wants to work with governments towards the phase out of conventional cigarettes. The claims have been met with scepticism, but do they stand up to scrutiny?
At an investor day held in late September 2016, PMI chief executive officer Andre Calantzopolous outlined the company’s strategic priorities, which include “to continue leading the combustible product category and deliver against our current growth algorithm” and for “Reduced risk products (RRPs) to ultimately replace cigarettes to the benefit of all stakeholders”. Calantzopoulos described the ‘excellent combustible fundamentals’ which include: improving cigarette industry volume/trend mix, and broad and balanced geographic footprint with expansion opportunities. While these are not exactly the words of a leader who wants to get out of the cigarette business, he also states that the company is committed to achieving widespread conversion to RRPs, and that PMI “welcome all alternatives to achieve a combustion-free world as quickly as possible.” Together these contradictory priorities sound very much like a bet each way.
At first glance, the latter rhetoric sounds like the company has finally – after more than 50 years of denial and deceit about the harms of tobacco – realised that not only is the tobacco business ethically and morally bankrupt, but it is also the wrong profit-making horse to back. However, a closer look suggests that reduced risk products may be yet another cynical tactic for the company to position itself as a socially responsible entity that deserves to be treated as part of the solution, rather than the problem.
The glaring omission in the rhetoric is the most obvious alternative for PMI to meaningfully contribute to achieving a combustion-free world: announce a date by which the company will phase out combustible products entirely. Calantzopoulos is on record as stating the iQOS (I Quit Ordinary Smoking) technology which appears to be the platform it is pinning most hope on, put the industry “on the cusp of a revolution”. At the September meeting, he told investors that almost one million smokers have already converted to RRPs and it had captured nearly 3% of the Japanese cigarette market. Wells Fargo Securities tobacco analyst Bonnie Herzog estimates that iQOS could displace 30% of the global combustible market by 2025.
At the September 2016 investor day, Calantzopoulos was not shy about framing RRPs as a public health solution with enormous potential, claiming “…if we can encourage a meaningful portion of adult smokers to rapidly switch to RRPs that meet this standard, it is likely to create a significant additional population health benefit relative to current regulatory efforts.” He called on the public health community to embrace this approach, and noted “we are very much encouraged by the growing number of pre-eminent public health advocates that already support the principle of tobacco harm reduction through products and science.”
The public health community has seen similar promises before: the promise of reduced risk products is nothing new, and the safety of iQOS is largely untested. If these products fail, as their predecessors have done, PMI will have benefited from iQOS and other reduced risk products being branded consistently with its combustible tobacco products.
Presumably anticipating such objections, Calantzopoulos noted, “I fully recognise there is scepticism and a deficit of trust in our determination to lead the effort to achieve a combustion-free world as soon as possible. Although we cannot change the past, we can certainly change the future and transform our company.”
Indeed, PMI can certainly change the future and transform the company. Nothing will accelerate the transition to a smoke free world more effectively than PMI withdrawing completely from the combustibles market, supported by the intensive consumer engagement strategies it is already using to promote uptake of iQOS.
Public health advocates who are willing to work with the tobacco industry on joint harm reduction approaches would do well to remember the fable of the scorpion and the frog, in which the frog agrees to carry the scorpion across a stream. Halfway across, the scorpion stings the frog. As they both start to drown, the frog asks ‘why?’, to which the scorpion replies ‘it’s my nature’.
This is an edited version of an article which was published in the Worldwide News & Comment section of the November edition of Tobacco Control.