How anti-smoking campaigns actually helped Philip Morris create a 'better cigarette'

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New Zealand just gave electronic cigarettes the all-clear.

It will monitor the science closely, but has agreed that e-cigarettes will help it achieve its “SmokeFree” national goal by 2025, and the sale of nicotine e-cigarettes and e-liquid will be made legal with appropriate controls.

Just days ago, a member of Philip Morris’s PR team told me it was hoping that decision would be made “within days”.

One of the perks of being a business journalist is every now and then, you get to enjoy corporate hospitality at a big sports event.

Rarely is it a free lunch. Usually, there’s a prerogative to attend a product launch, or chat with several managers on the promise that there’s “a good story” in it for you.

For the most part, there is. The tickets are expensive, and company PR folk also know that journalists have little tolerance – or these days, time – for fluff, so the invites are geared to make sure it’s not a pointless exercise for either side.

So this year, I jumped at the chance to take up this offer:

Picture: Peter Farquhar

Philip Morris going smoke-free? Sure, let’s talk about that.

But first of all, they weren’t kidding about “some of the best views of the track”. It’s the first turn, where things get messy early:

Picture: Getty Images

That’s a professional shot, but here’s mine of the view:

Picture: Peter Farquhar

And if you look closer, someone enjoying a drag at what I was told would be a “smoke-free” event:

Picture: Peter Farquhar

Interesting, but clearly it was an e-cigarette, so maybe the rules didn’t apply to vapers. Of course, I had just strode straight through the pavilion to the track and when I went back inside, I realised I had missed part of the point of being here. This:

Picture: Peter Farquhar

“Our vision – for all of us at PMI – is that these products will one day replace cigarettes.”

On display were the four products. You’re unlikely to have seen any of them in Australia, because you can’t buy them here, but they are for sale in 20 markets around the world.

Of the four, this was the most intriguing and certainly the first product everyone I spoke to wanted to talk about:

Picture: Peter Farquhar

It’s called IQOS. It represents Philip Morris’ future as a provider of “Reduced Risk Products”.

You don’t smoke cigarettes through it, you smoke tobacco sticks, or HEETS. Here’s me flicking a pack open like an old pro, which I’m not:

Philip Morris has spent billions developing it, and the related products. At the heart of it all is the science that makes it happen so the tobacco is not burnt. It’s heated.

And for it to “burn” (which it doesn’t) it has to be ground up finer, which is why you can’t smoke a regular cigarette through an IQOS:

The larger capsule is a charger. The HEETS holder itself gives you enough juice to puff for six minutes, or take 14 drags.

Walking me through all this was Philip Morris’s chief medical advisor, Mikael Franzon, an incredibly charming Swedish scientist with a PhD in philosophy and neuropsychology. He’s made his way to Philip Morris via Novartis and Pfizer where he spent more than seven years advising, researching and developing therapeutic strategies for dealing with tobacco dependence.

He believes in IQOS. Of course, everyone in the room believes in IQOS. This is, after all, the marketing department of a Big Tobacco company.

Franzon told me how Philip Morris had spent years and “billions” developing its new reduced risk products. And what they had now was a heated cigarette which emits “95%” less toxins than a burnt one. It’s the burning and the high heat level, Philip Morris found, that is responsible for the vast majority of the damage.

This is another heated product:

Picture: Peter Farquhar

It’s another fine-ground tobacco product, but uses a carbon tip to generate the heat and distribute it evenly to heat the tobacco. The other two “platforms” which will form part of Philip Morris’s push to go smoke-free are closer to vaping products.

The products still contain nicotine — 5% of the toxins that don’t get eliminated when tobacco is heated. Franzon tells me there’s some harm associated with nicotine use, but it’s negligible compared to what they were eliminating.

Franzon really was charming. About halfway through our session, I suddenly found both of us facing each other with our elbows up on the back of the couch. How did that happen?

IQOS is market-ready. In fact, 1.6 million users are buying it in 20 countries, but not in Australia, Franzon told me with a sympathetic look. And there’s a much longer post to be written about the trials Philip Morris and other tobacco companies have had in getting e-cigarettes into Australia. The basic premise is all forms of e-cigarettes, and Philip Morris’s heat-not-burn products, are considered “gateway” products which will direct users onto harmful cigarettes.

Philip Morris’s view is that they will switch cigarettes smokers back to less harmful products.

The people in the pavilion at the Australian Grand Prix seemed frustrated, but with the air of people very used to feeling frustration. The mood was an intriguing mix of resignation, bemusement, confidence and optimism.

There are always other countries willing to listen to reason, they said. Countries like New Zealand.

And in December, Franzon’s team filed an application for its new products to the US Food and Drug Administration. I was told it was something in the order of 2.3 million pages.

It’s a massive play for the tobacco giant – a commitment to go smoke-free. Another PR guy noted the irony in that it took cigarettes to be made all but illegal to force Philip Morris to come up wth a product that is better than cigarettes.

He’d been smoking variations of IQOS for two years and every now and then, when he was tempted to try the real thing, he said regular cigarettes tasted “vile”.

There wasn’t a lot else we could talk about at this stage, but there is no doubt this will be a big deal in the months to come. And of course, we had the cars to watch, and after Sebastien Vettel had claimed pole position, we got an intimate Q+A with him.

Picture: Peter Farquhar

He too, was very charming.

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