The tobacco paradox

“We are absolutely serious – one day we want to stop selling cigarettes.”

Those were the words of Philip Morris International (PMI) UK & Ireland managing director Peter Nixon, and when he made those comments to the BBC in an interview last year, collective eye-brows were raised.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the comments were taken with a pinch of salt by many – and with good reason.

Big Tobacco has been criticised in the past for misleading the public over the harmful and addictive characteristics of cigarettes.

And besides, how could a senior member of the world’s second-largest tobacco company seriously be encouraging people to stop smoking?

Nixon’s claims come at an interesting time in the tobacco industry – perhaps even a crossroads.

While smoking rates are tumbling across the bulk of Europe, tobacco sales continue to climb in many lesser developed nations worldwide.

But with awareness and education constantly increasing over the harmful side-effects of tobacco, not to mention increasingly stringent advertising restrictions, it seems inevitable that global sales will ultimately start declining – and fast.

So, Big Tobacco is playing the long game.

Having seen the meteoric rise of electronic cigarettes and the increasingly popular strategy of harm reduction, companies such as PMI have decided to embrace cigarette alternatives.

The popularity of electronic cigarettes has soared since 2013. The sector was valued at $11.43b in 2016, and is expected to reach as much as $86.43b by 2025.

At the nub of their popularity is their reduced risk, with Public Health England (PHE) concluding that they are 95 per cent less harmful than traditional cigarettes.

This means that, when it comes to tobacco, they have formed a cornerstone for the harm reduction strategy being pursued by a growing number of countries.

Harm reduction is usually more closely associated with narcotics, and involves things like safe places to inject, giving clean needles to users and having injections monitored by trained health professionals.

It may seem counter-intuitive in terms of eradicating drug use, but harm reduction does at least lessen the societal and health implications of taking drugs.

This mirrors the example of electronic cigarettes, which are proven to be less harmful to health and are widely deemed as more socially acceptable – although they do remain either banned or heavily restricted in a number of countries across the globe.

PMI have taken this one step further with heat-not-burn technology (HNB). In a sort of middle ground between vaping and conventional cigarettes, they still use tobacco, but heat it to much lower temperatures to make it less dangerous.

And less dangerous it is. In the UK, the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals found it exposed users to between 50 and 90 per cent fewer ‘harmful and potentially harmful compounds’ found in traditional cigarettes.

While they are not placing all of their eggs in one basket, HNB explains Nixon’s confusing comments regarding cigarettes: it could represent the next giant leap in the tobacco industry.

Total abstinence might be preferential, but if HNB does offer a nicotine hit for far fewer health risks then smokers will surely embrace it.

It may well be unpalatable to many that Big Tobacco is offering a potential answer to weaning people off cigarettes, but it is harm reduction in action: limiting the impact is surely better than unrealistically trying to eradicate the problem all together.

Melissa Thompson writes about a wide range of topics, revealing interesting things we didn’t know before. She is a freelance USA Today producer, and a Technorati contributor.