The Current

Big Tobacco's Philip Morris says it's quitting cigarettes. Critics doubt it

One of the world's biggest tobacco companies, Philip Morris has invested heavily in new e-cigarettes — promising a much safer product. But can you trust an industry with such a history of doublespeak and duplicity?
The electronic cigarette. Safer than the real thing? (Nam Y. Huh/The Associated Press)

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One of the world's largest tobacco companies says it is doing the unimaginable -— quitting cigarettes. Tobacco control advocates, however, are skeptical it will ever happen.

André Calantzopoulos, chief executive of Philip Morris International, says he wants to move the company toward producing less toxic product such as e-cigarettes and cigarette alternatives. But he has not yet put a timetable on when the company will stop selling cigarettes.

"From a public health perspective, the only thing that's going to have an impact is if people move away from cigarettes and we shift demand," Peter Luongo tells The Current's guest host Laura Lynch.

Luongo, a top official with PMI's Canadian subsidiary Rothmans Benson & Hedges, says customers shifting away from cigarettes and toward cigarette alternatives will take some time.

Given the tobacco industry's decades-long track record of lying about the health risks of cigarettes, there's no surprise tobacco control advocates aren't buying the talk from tobacco executives on public health concerns.

"There's a much better alternative [than moving customers onto new products] and that is to help smokers quit altogether, and from stopping young people from starting to smoke in the first place," says Melodie Tilson, the policy director for the Non-Smokers' Rights Association.

Tilson says public health officials don't yet have enough long-term data to confirm that cigarette alternatives such as RBH's iQOS, do not pose health risks, as Luongo contends.
Tobacco-control advocates say Philip Morris's assertion they will be "smoke-free" by gradually replacing cigarettes with new e-cigarette products like their latest, iQOS should not be trusted. (Reuters)

"To be clear, we do welcome reduced-risk products but we think it's vital that the public and regulators have a heavy dose of skepticism about the motives of these companies and about their claims regarding health benefits," Tilson tells Lynch.

Cigarette alternatives like iQOS are sometimes referred to as "heat-not-burn products." The tobacco is only heated to the point of vapourization — not combustion —  so users inhale vapour rather than smoke. E-cigarettes don't include tobacco, instead mixing nicotine in a solution.

Some tobacco critics believe PMI will never stop selling cigarettes and is only saying it will to generate media coverage the company can then use to market its burgeoning cigarette alternative products.

Luongo countered that by arguing RBH has an obligation to inform smokers that the company is now making cigarette alternatives.

"These products are not risk-free," Luongo admits.

"They are for people who would otherwise keep smoking, not people who would otherwise quit. But if you are going to continue smoking, this is a better choice and we need to be able to have that conversation with consumers."

University of Waterloo's David Hammond studies tobacco control policy and the history of attempts at harm reduction.

He tells Lynch that public health scientists should study the health claims Big Tobacco is making about cigarette alternatives, and if they hold up to objective scrutiny, the products could be an effective tool in stopping people from smoking. 
Philip Morris International's iQOS device heats up to create a tobacco-flavoured vapour. (CBC)

"The bottom line is getting people off of smoke. There is nothing dirtier, more harmful than smoke as a delivery mechanism for nicotine."

Hammond notes that while government regulations in Canada have focused on the packaging and marketing of cigarettes, no efforts have been made to reduce the addictiveness of cigarettes.

"The cigarette today is as, or more harmful, than it was 50 to 60 years ago. So maybe for the first time the government should think about phasing cigarettes out, or giving companies financial incentives to stop selling cigarettes if these other products are appealing to our 4.5 million smokers."

Hammond also stresses that people should not view cigarette alternatives like iQOS as safe or harmless. He said they may be less harmful than cigarettes, but they're still harmful. 

"It could well be that iQOS is the most harmful consumer product on the market after cigarettes. And there could still be substantial reduction. It's a difficult thing to think about as less harmful but still harmful but I think that's the category that we should be thinking."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith and Samira Mohyeddin.