Philip Morris’s ‘smoke-free’ cigarette seems unlikely to ignite in Australia

16 February 2017:

Cigarette giant Philip Morris, which professes it wants a smoke-free future, is facing major regulatory obstacles to its plan to introduce to Australia a new cigarette that eliminates smoke by heating tobacco rather than burning it.

The product, which Philip Morris International says has cost the company $US3 billion in research and development over the past decade, has already been banned in New Zealand.

A spokesman for Philip Morris said the company was working through “regulatory issues” with a view to launching the “no-smoke” cigarette in Australia. He would not give a date for the planned launch, despite other industry sources suggesting it was as early as April.

The cigarette company claims its new product, known as iQos, reduces the amount of dangerous toxins that smokers inhale from conventional cigarettes. It uses an electrical device to heat tobacco, rather than igniting it, producing a nicotine vapour instead of smoke. While conventional vapourisers heat a liquid inside the device, “e-cigarette” users puff on a stick of dried tobacco, much like a conventional cigarette.  

But the company’s claims have not only failed to persuade health authorities in New Zealand. The European Union issued a statement in January urging caution towards the product, saying there was a lack of evidence about short and long-term health effects. Russian authorities are also reportedly opposed to the product.

Australia’s assistant Health Minister, David Gillespie, said his department knew Philip Morris had launched the product across 12 cities in Japan in October 2015, but he was not aware of the cigarette company’s plans for Australia or that New Zealand had banned iQos.

However, Dr Gillespie made clear the tobacco company was unlikely to get permission to sell the new cigarette in Australia under current regulations.

“The commercial supply of nicotine is effectively prohibited in Australia via state and territory poisons legislation, with some exceptions, such as for tobacco prepared and packed for smoking, and certain nicotine replacement therapies,” the minister said in a statement to Fairfax Media.

“The department is of the view that these exemptions would not likely apply to heat-not-burn products as the nicotine in them would not be in the form of tobacco prepared and packed for smoking. Australia also has a comprehensive set of tobacco control measures, a number of which may apply to heat-not-burn products.  For instance, the Tobacco Plain Packaging Act 2011 and the Tobacco Advertising Prohibition Act 1992 would likely apply to heat-not-burn products.”

The recent decision by Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration to retain nicotine on its poisons list also complicates Philip Morris’s plans. The TGA’s decision effectively bans e-cigarettes, or vaporisers, containing nicotine.

Despite the TGA having no direct role in making rules about “heat-not burn” products, Dr Gillespie said that “further consideration of policy options to address heat-not-burn products may be considered in the context of a national response to e-cigarettes”.

The lack of an exemption from laws prohibiting the commercial supply of tobacco for purposes other than smoking is similar to the ruling that has banned the product in New Zealand.

The New Zealand Ministry of Health notified Philip Morris early this month that “heated not burned” products were banned under a section of the Smoke-Free Environments Act because they contained tobacco for oral use.

The NZ Act states that “no person shall import for sale, sell, pack, or distribute any tobacco product labelled or otherwise described as suitable for chewing, or for any other oral use (other than smoking).” Philip Morris’s invention was judged to be “not for smoking”, and therefore was banned, the Health Ministry ruled.

The cigarette company was informed of the New Zealand government’s decision after it had launched iQos at an expensive event on the Auckland waterfront and had advertised for people to market the product across New Zealand. Philip Morris is fighting the NZ decision, declaring the regulations were long out of date and had been created to regulate chewing tobacco.

Philip Morris International’s vice president of communications, Tony Snyder, made clear in a statement late last month that iQos was an attempt to tempt smokers to switch from conventional cigarettes without losing most of the sensations of smoking tobacco.

“Adult smokers are looking for product choices that offer the satisfying taste, ritual, and pleasure they get from cigarettes, but with far lower amounts of the harmful compounds found in smoke,” Mr Snyder said.

Philip Morris is the world’s biggest cigarette company outside China.