The New Zealand branch of Philip Morris Limited (PMNZ) made headlines this week when they publicly announced plans to pull their infamous Marlboro cigarettes from retailers. PMNZ General Manager James Williams broke the news in a series of press releases, saying “[Philip Morris] is seriously committed to replac[ing] cigarettes as soon as possible [and would] support regulation that accelerates positive change to the benefit of adult smokers, public health and society at large”. The company, according to Williams, would remove their cigarettes as soon as the “right regulations and tax structures were in place”. The news seems good on the surface – surely the death of Marlboro, one of the most recognisable cigarette brands in New Zealand, would encourage smokers to quit? Mike Hosking certainly seems to think so: in an address given on Newstalk ZB, he called the announcement a “practical” offer which would set New Zealand on track to become smoke-free by 2025. But is there more to this than meets the eye? A quick read of recent history suggests Philip Morris might be operating more as profiteers than philanthropists.
Throughout 2017 and 2018, Philip Morris International (PMI) ran a $6.8 million global rebranding campaign. The campaign – which garnered headlines for its apparent hypocrisy – argued for the regulation of cigarette manufacturers, and called on smokers to give up smoking. Advertisements ran with headlines like “Hold My Light”, and provided links to PMI-run message boards where smokers could talk amongst themselves and encourage each other to quit. The message boards encourage smokers to sign up to PMI’s Smoke-Free Future program, which would send smokers information on how best to give up the ghost. So far, so good.
Shortly afterwards, PMI announced the launch of its new e-cigarette: iQOS. PMI billed iQOS as the best low-risk alternative to cigarettes: perfect for helping smokers wean themselves off the real stuff. iQOS, PMI claimed, heated tobacco without burning it, giving smokers the sensation of smoking without any of the added nasties. In addition, it was cheaper in the long-run, less obtrusive, and more fashionable (at least, that was what PMI adverts – which ran rampant across all their websites – told smokers). So far, so self-serving – but any alternative to cigarettes is good, right?
Wrong. Although PMI aggressively promoted the apparent health benefits of iQOS, many officials disagreed with their assertions. In America, the Food and Drug Administration refused to officially endorse PMI’s health claims after an independent review of the company’s research found PMI had not proven that iQOS reduced harm when compared with traditional cigarettes. The review also found that, while iQOS did have lower levels of some harmful or potentially harmful chemicals than cigarettes, it actually had stronger doses of other harmful chemicals. This review was followed by the publication of a research paper conducted by the University of California San Francisco Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, which found the levels of nicotine in iQOS could make the pen as addictive as traditional cigarettes. Finally, an investigation launched by the newspaper Reuters found PMI’s experiments had been riddled with problems: researchers had not been properly trained; data had been thrown out; some trials had results which were physically impossible; and on at least one occasion a researcher had been excluded from meetings after voicing concern over the legitimacy of the trials.
Despite these setbacks, PMI forged ahead with their campaign to replace traditional cigarettes with iQOS. The company switched tack with their policy-lobbying, which had traditionally called for the deregulation of traditional cigarette manufacturers. Their new demands – which differed slightly depending on which country they targeted – were endless. PMI wanted tax breaks for companies which produced smoking alternatives; PMI wanted to make it harder for competing companies to patent e-cigarettes, arguing (ironically enough) that regulators were unable to verify the claims of many competing and up-and-coming e-cigarette brands; PMI wanted governments to step-up their anti-smoking rhetoric by directing consumers away from traditional cigarettes and towards better, safer alternatives (like e-cigarettes); and PMI wanted large, government bodies, like America’s FDA, to publicly acknowledge e-cigarettes were, in general, a safer, healthier alternative to smoking. In short, PMI wanted governments to fund and promote their latest product.
All this brings us back to the present. Remember when I said PMNZ were considering pulling their cigarettes from shelves? Unsurprisingly, it turns out they’ll only do this if the government agrees to a certain set of demands. Firstly, they want the government to give generous tax cuts to manufacturers of tobacco-heated e-cigarettes (a category which would cover PMNZ but few other e-cigarette manufacturers). Secondly, they want the government to officially recognise e-cigarettes as a healthier alternative to traditional cigarettes. Finally, they want the government to provide smokers with “access to accurate and non-misleading information about smoke-free alternatives” – which, in the minds of PMNZ, probably involves pamphlets, advertisements and ad-campaigns extolling the virtues of e-cigarettes like iQOS.
Speaking of iQOS, has it gotten any better for users since its launch? Judge for yourself: in an interview given to Stuff, PMNZ General Manager James Williams called the company an “experimental hot house for a tobacco product we’re not sure of the research about”. The statement might be legally indisputable, but it isn’t exactly reassuring.
With all this in mind, it’s difficult to see PMNZ’s press releases as anything more than self-serving rhetoric. Perhaps PMNZ truly does believe “the best way to achieve a Smokefree 2025 is [for the government] to encourage all those would otherwise continue smoking to switch to smoke-free products, such as e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products”. Perhaps PMNZ also believes a smoke free 2025 would only be possible if “the right regulations and tax structures [were put] in place”. But I seriously doubt it – it’s much more likely the company sees iQOS as the cigarette of the 21st Century: an addictive, tobacco-and-nicotine based product poised to ensnare a new generation of would-be smokers. Despite the re-brand, PMI’s core message – one of obnoxious government lobbying, misleading health reports, and flagrant profiteering – remains as obvious as ever.