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Reflecting on last week’s announcement of Philip Morris International’s investment of US$680 million in a heat-not-burn (HnB) cigarette manufacturing plant in Bologna Italy, I was reminded of F. Ross Johnson’s robust, succinct (and possibly apocryphal) encapsulation of the perils for tobacco manufacturers in developing reduced harm cigarettes: “We’ve spent 350 million dollars and we come up with a turd with a tip? … We put enough technology in this project to send a cigarette to the moon and we come up with one that tastes like it took a dump?”
In today’s money, the sum looks remarkably similar to the amount that PMI are proposing to spend and F. Ross Johnson was speaking as the CEO of RJR Nabisco, at the moment of realisation that he had ploughed a king’s ransom into a product, Premier which was destined for the scrapheap. But Premier was a unique, and uniquely flawed product, so surely one can assume that major companies have learnt from a farrago that is now infamous for its disregard for the principles of product development, all of which are acute in the case of HnB tobacco products – cost, legislative restrictions, marketability and consumer acceptance. Surely?
The principle on which HnB products have been based is that an external heat source vaporises the nicotine from what resembles a traditional cigarette, thereby avoiding the toxicants which result from combustion (this is in contrast to e-cigarettes which vaporise nicotine only in a nicotine-extract liquid). The quest to develop a serviceable HnB cigarette has played only one part in the history of the so-called ‘reduced harm cigarette’ but it is potentially the key piece of the puzzle, as if tobacco manufacturers cannot completely chemically eliminate the toxins which endanger tobacco consumers, HnB removes the combustion which renders carcinogens viable.
Premier was the first serious (I use that word referring to the intention rather than its execution) effort to develop a heat-not-burn product, but has been followed by others over time, Eclipse (also from RJR Reynolds) which showed signs of learning some of the lessons of the Premier debacle and is still sold (albeit symbolically, in miniscule volumes) on the US market and more recently Accord and Heatbar from PMI. Technological advances were made in later iterations of HnB products so that Premier’s aluminium capsule with tobacco pellet became the heated glycerine of Eclipse but consumer acceptability remained woefully short.
Taste was a major factor in this but speaking as a witness in a Montreal court in November 2013, Jeffrey Gentry Executive VP Science at RJR Tobacco made an intriguing comment on the drawbacks of the ‘not-burn’ aspect of these products: precisely because the product did not burn down, ‘there were no sensory cues that the product was progressing’. The intriguing element of this is that e-cigarette users regularly raise this as a failing of those products also – there is no way to know when they’ve had enough. Philip Morris must ensure that its next generation HnB products satisfy this sense-of-closure required by the psychological strictures of smokers.
The success of previous HnB products has been limited, not only by characteristics of the products themselves but also by the manner in which they have been communicated to consumers. In this respect, restrictions have been twofold. Internally, the tobacco industry has in the past been reluctant to make a hue and cry about reduced harm alternative products, conscious of the moral and legal consequences of the implied comparison to its harmful, standard products. This self-censorship regrettably went hand-in-hand with a lack of support for reduced-harm from health groups and regulators, for whom addictiveness and attractiveness was and still is as significant as toxicity. As a result of these dynamics, later HnB products have been marketed as safer only in terms of protecting the social standing of smokers and not their health – emitting less sidestream smoke and supposedly being less pungent.
The first of these restrictions, the drive to self-censorship is of course now redundant. The industry uniformly acknowledges the potential harm engendered by its products and has nothing to lose (and everything to gain) from trumpeting the reduced-risk credentials of innovations. The question, and it is a significant one, is whether the industry will be allowed to do so by regulators. At the moment this looks unlikely. The FDA has recently established its long-awaited Modified Risk Products Committee and there is some movement in the direction of allowing such messaging to the public. However, it is likely that much of whatever goodwill exists in this regard will be lavished on truly smokeless products such as snus and generally there is no surfeit of pragmatism amongst the global tobacco control community – in terms of a wholesale adoption of the lesser evil of reduced harm products. One suspects that regulators will be slow to appreciate the vital but, in the eyes of many, ‘of-a-degree’ distinction between a tobacco cigarette which is gently stewed rather than flash fried.
However, in many respects, as long as Philip Morris can get a HnB product to market, restrictions such as these may not matter. Many major markets have been primed by the rise of e-cigarettes, which after all cannot describe themselves as healthier alternatives either, to know that the absence of combustion makes a tobacco product less dangerous and a bald statement of fact regarding a HnB product: ‘Does not burn tobacco’ will constitute an effective claim of greater safety.
Indeed, in more ways than just this, I suspect PMI sees the rise of e-cigarettes as an outrider for its HnB platforms. They have identified and nurtured a demand for less harmful alternatives to combustible tobacco use but repeat use remains low, in large part due to the dissimilarities between e-cigarettes and traditional products. The right HnB product would be well-placed to fill this gap, providing many consumers with an acceptable best of both worlds. HnB technology in theory also has the potential to reach the markets, in which for taste or cultural reasons, combustible tobacco smoking is more entrenched and which e-cigarettes cannot currently penetrate, including (with the correct licensing and diplomacy) perhaps even the gargantuan Chinese market.
Initial reports from PMI’s HnB product are promising. It is said to be less cumbersome and more streamlined than its Accord and Heatbar predecessors. But this alone will not be enough. The inauspicious history of HnB tells us that it must smell less, not worse, than a traditional combustible cigarette. It must contain within it an endpoint for its own use. And it must be branded in a way which implies its reduced risk profile without falling foul of regulations which are highly unlikely to bend over to facilitate its success. If it fails in some or all of these aspects then one could suggest that Philip Morris would have been better served to spend US$680 million on being the first tobacco company on the moon.