Is Big Tobacco Initiating a Big Change? Or a Big Con?


“If we can put a man on the moon, we can deliver tobacco to people with less risk than smoking.”

A dozen organizations – could have made that statement. Millions of vapers – could have made that statement. Medical doctors, lawyers, public health officials – could have made that statement.

So, who made that statement? Her name is Debra Crew. Ms. Crew knows quite a bit about delivering tobacco to people. More than most. As the Chief Executive Officer of Reynolds American, delivering tobacco to people is literally her job. She made the comment in her speech to the Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum in New York. Is Big Tobacco initiating a big change? Or a big con?

Reynolds American is not the only Big Tobacco organization that is shifting their focus. Andre Calantzopoulos, Phillip Morris International’s (PMI) chief executive officer stated that the FDA’s July 28th announcement was “one of the best articulated positions in many years.”

In June of 2015 I wrote a blog discussing PMI’s investment of more than $2 billion for research and development of reduced risk products. In the two years since that piece was written, PMI’s investment has increased to $4 billion.

Much of that investment was focused on the development of PMI’s “heat not burn” product – IQOS. IQOS debuted in Japan in 2016 and is expected to be available in 35 markets by the end of this year. IQOS currently has 3 million users including about 10% of the Japanese cigarette market. According to PMI, 70% of those users have switched to using IQOS exclusively. And PMI claims that 8000 new customers are switching every day.

IQOS is currently not available in the U.S. but PMI has filed a Modified Risk Tobacco Product (MRTP) application with the FDA. Greg Conley, President of the American Vaping Association sent a letter to the FDA urging approval of the PMI MRTP application.

“As strong believers in the possibility of the United States attaining a ‘smoke-free’ future with technology, innovation, and a recognition of informed human choice, we strongly recommended that the FDA approve these MRTP applications.”

Guy Bentley along with  Brian Fojtik of the Reason Foundation also filed a comment with FDA in support of PMI’s MRTP application.

“According to PMI Science, 18 chemicals whose concentrations the FDA deems as essential to evaluating the relative safety of tobacco products are reduced by 90-95 percent in IQOS.”

For those skeptical of any science conducted by one of the world’s largest producers of cigarettes (which is just about everyone), Bentley went on to say:

“Thankfully, PMI Science is not the only source of the relative risks of IQOS. Konstantinos Farsalinos, a research fellow at the Onassis Cardiac Surgery Center in Athens and world-renowned researcher on e-cigarettes, conducted investigations into the toxicity of IQOS in a non-PMI lab and found broadly the same results.”

As of this writing, a total of 34 comments have been submitted to FDA regarding PMI’s MRTP application. Nearly all of them in support of FDA granting PMI the modified risk designation. If successful, this would be the first MRTP application ever approved by the FDA. That would allow PMI to market IQOS as a safer alternative to combustible cigarettes.

An FDA spokesman has indicated that FDA intends to review the December 2016 application within 360 days. Accomplishing that will be a monumental challenge. You see, the application, it’s 2 million pages long. 4,000 reams of paper weighing 20,000 pounds and standing 68 stories high if stacked vertically. Hopefully PMI numbered the pages. Just in case.

Is Big Tobacco initiating a big change? Or a big con? The answer to that question depends very much on who is doing the answering. Proponents of harm reduction will see it as a very positive change. The prohibitionists are going to be thinking (and shouting) “con” all the way.

Big Tobacco has spent decades marketing the deadliest consumer product ever created. Big Tobacco has lied to their customers. To the general public. To the World Health Organization. To healthcare providers. And to the U.S. Congress.They have made mind boggling profits in the process. They continue to do so. There is no credible reason to believe that they will stop any time soon.

Conversely, Big Pharma, public health organizations and agencies of federal, state and local governments, have spent more than a decade fighting tobacco harm reduction in favor of a prohibitionist approach. They maintain that abstinence is the only acceptable option. Big Pharma and public health have lied to their customers. To the general public. To the WHO. To healthcare providers. And to the U.S. Congress. Big Pharma has made mind boggling profits in the process. Universities and independent research organizations fiercely compete for millions and millions of research grant dollars. Governments at every level have collected billions of smoking, and now vaping, tax dollars. They continue to do so. There is no credible reason to believe that they will stop any time soon.

What was once a clear dividing line between the “black hats” and the “white hats” is now far from clear. Both sides have a credibility problem. Mind boggling profits and credibility do not go hand in hand.

Are we being conned by Big Tobacco? I don’t think so. What we are seeing is BT’s response to a seismic shift in the nicotine market. The epicenter is e-cigarettes. Smoking rates are at historic lows. Because of e-cigarettes. And they are continuing to decline in developed counties at unprecedented rates. Because of e-cigarettes. And now, finally, the FDA has adopted a policy of evidence based harm reduction. Because of e-cigarettes. Big Tobacco is looking at big trouble. In the not too distant future. Because of e-cigarettes. Time for a new plan.

Regardless of how ruthless and dishonest BT may be, when all is said and done, these are businesses. Businesses that are seeing their customer base decline. And the vaping market growing faster than ever. BT is turning over a new leaf. It’s not about the goodness of their non-existent heart. It’s about money. They will capture the lion’s share of the emerging market. They will deliver nicotine to people with a delivery system that poses dramatically less risk than smoking. Crazy as it sounds, BT will take the lead in tobacco harm reduction. And they will continue to make tens of billions of dollars in profit along the way.

“Envisioning a world where cigarettes would no longer create or sustain addiction, and where adults who still need or want nicotine could get it from alternative and less-harmful sources, needs to be the cornerstone of our efforts. And we believe it’s vital that we pursue this common ground.”                      Scott Gottlieb, FDA Commissioner

Big Tobacco is changing their cornerstone. Who knows, they may even improve their credibility.


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Dave Coggin has a Master’s Degree in business and spent 35 years in corporate America. He is a co-founder and partner in DIYELS. He has spent the last five years actively researching and following the evolution of the e-cigarette industry. He is a strong proponent of e-cigarettes as the most promising option currently known for tobacco harm reduction. He may be contacted directly at dave@diyels.com .

The opinions presented here are exclusively those of the author. Vaper’s Vortex is offered as a service to our customers and followers. Anyone considering e-cigarettes as an alternative to tobacco cigarettes should seek qualified advice from a medical professional.

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