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Tobacco giant Philip Morris sees a future without cigarettes -- but there's a catch

Andrea Chang, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

The maker of Marlboro and other cigarette brands has a new mission: getting the world's 1 billion smokers to quit smoking.

You read that right. Philip Morris International is trying to persuade customers to switch to its heated tobacco products, which it claims are safer alternatives because they are smoke-free. Eventually, the company hopes, governments will regulate cigarettes out of existence altogether.

Given Big Tobacco's long history of distortions and misleading the public, some skepticism is in order. Although the FDA has authorized the commercialization of Philip Morris' IQOS electronic device and is allowing it to be marketed as "a modified risk tobacco product" with "reduced exposure," the agency said further scientific research was needed. It also added this warning: "It is important to note that these products are not safe."

Still, after nearly two centuries selling cigarettes, Philip Morris is staking its future on its heat-not-burn products — even as executives admit they take some getting used to and that most smokers won't immediately enjoy them. The world's largest tobacco company has so far sunk more than $8.1 billion into developing its smoke-free business, and IQOS is now sold in 64 countries, with an estimated 17.6 million users.

"Converting the world's smokers is an extremely positive and lucrative business for us," said Martin King, chief executive of Philip Morris International America. "In 10 to 15 years, we think cigarettes can be out of the market entirely — people will quit or, if they're still using nicotine, it'll be in a noncombustible way."

We spoke with King about the company's change in direction and the challenges of trying to wean customers off an addictive product (and onto another). This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

How long has Philip Morris been working on smoke-free products?

We've been researching and trying to come up with noncombustible products and reduced-exposure products for decades. We did have several attempts with heated tobacco products that were not successful: The taste was not there; the electronics were too big.

What was the breakthrough?

We came up with a way of heating the tobacco with a blade from the inside that gave a much better taste and experience. The technology had evolved so the electronics were more sophisticated and could control the temperature profile of the puffing. In 2014, we finally had a product that we were confident would work.

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