Philip Morris International, the company that supplies Marlboros, Parliaments and Virginia Slims to smokers across the globe, is looking to get into a less dangerous line of business. At a meeting this week outside Washington, the world's premier purveyor of cigarettes is trying to convince a panel convened by the Food and Drug Administration that its newest offering will be a boon to the nation's public health.
Philip Morris and its U.S. partner, Altria, want the FDA's permission to sell a tobacco product it calls the IQOS system in the United States.
They're prepared to tell potential customers that IQOS is not danger-free. But they want the FDA to greenlight a tantalizing marketing claim: that, for those who switch from cigarettes to IQOS, the result will be lower exposure to harmful chemicals and a reduced risk of tobacco-related disease.
Philip Morris hopes the system will transform the market for tobacco products, and it certainly looks the part.
Available in matte black or modern white, its sleek cylinder encloses a filtered roll of dried tobacco product called a "HeatStick." With a click, the holder draws a blade heated to 350 degrees through the dried leaf. After 14 puffs or six minutes, a user returns the holder to a case that looks like it could be the latest wireless device. The system is quickly recharged and ready to toast up another heat stick.
For the user, the IQOS system delivers nicotine like an e-cigarette, but with the taste and buzz of tobacco. A cigarette burns at 600 degrees, but at 350 degrees, the HeatStick tobacco never ignites. The user exhales a largely odorless vapor in which some of the most toxic byproducts of combustion -- carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, formaldehyde, mercury and ammonia -- are reduced by 69 percent to 99.9 percent compared to the average cigarette on the market.
Some 42 million Americans continue to smoke cigarettes. That's a potentially lucrative market for IQOS, which is already sold in close to 30 other countries. In the United Kingdom and Japan, which have accepted Philip Morris' claim that IQOS is a "risk-reduction" product, the device sells for roughly $70, and a pack of 20 HeatSticks fetches about $10.
But to gain access to U.S. smokers, Philip Morris and Altria must navigate a gauntlet of regulatory scrutiny.
Sometime this spring, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and the agency's scientists are expected to decide whether to clear the IQOS system for sale in the United States, as well as whether to allow it to be marketed as a less-dangerous alternative to smoking.
In an essay published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine, Gottlieb and Mitchell Zeller, who heads the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products, signaled their interest in products like IQOS.