Blog 30.11.16

No smoke no fire: will smokeless cigarettes make big tobacco ethical?

Credit: Philip Morris

A bullet in the head. It’s what you get living under ISIS if you shave, have a cell phone or smoke.

That’s why the liberated citizens of Mosul enjoy promenading with a cigarette between the lips and a spare tucked behind the ear.  Such is the lure of the backy that smoking persisted even if a sudden, rather than a slow, death awaited the inhaler of 7,357[1] chemical compounds that comprise a smoke.

Big Tobacco has a lot to answer for.  But what if smoking was as risky as drinking a cup of coffee, would that make the tobacco industry as cool as Nespresso?

This important ethical question could soon be real if the industry can deliver on the promise of what it calls “reduced-harm” products.

Really bad

Everyone agrees, including the industry, that smoking is really bad for you.  People in rich countries continue to smoke less.  But despite decades of anti-smoking campaigns and advertising bans, a lot of people still smoke and young people still take it up no matter the danger.  Ask the millennials of Mosul.

It seems to be human nature that we desire stimulants and nicotine is one of them. If you accept that people will continue to consume nicotine then they will search out tobacco which is the easiest, legal source of the drug.  It then follows we should encourage anything that dramatically reduces the harm of smoking. And that’s exactly what the tobacco industry is hoping for with its reduced-harm products.

What are they?

First there was snus, a Swedish combo of snuff and chewing tobacco that comes in what looks like a miniature tea bag. You stick it between your lip and gum.  Sounds truly ghastly but people love it and the Swedes are hoping for big exports.

Then came vaping.  These devices heat a nicotine-laced liquid – often flavoured – to give you the nicotine hit without the smoke.  They’re often marketed as cigarette substitutes and a way of quitting.  The market has grown quickly but ardent smokers still prefer the hit and flavour you get from 900°C combustion.

That’s why there’s big hope in Big Tobacco for devices that look like cigarettes and contain real tobacco, but don’t burn.  Instead, the tobacco is heated (to about 500°C) providing the smoker with the flavour, the heat and most important, the backy hit.

The magic – and the hope – is that you get all the nice stuff from the tobacco and avoid the 7,357 bad things.  Heat-not-burn cigarettes are being trialled in Japan, Italy, the UK (launched this week) and  parts of the USA.  Short-term tests on users have, so far, proved that they do indeed offer a much less harmful way of “smoking”.  How much less still has to be confirmed, but the industry lives in hope.

Will they replace burning tobacco?

If the new heat-not-burn cigarettes prove successful, will it mean the tobacco industry can throw off its smelly shackles and become the new Nespresso?

The reason why Big Tobacco continues to thrive and provide excellent returns to its investors lies in the low capital cost of production. The machines that make the cigarettes were paid for decades ago, making it cheap to produce the product.  The new techy cigarettes are a lot more expensive to produce and buy.  Like vapers, the contraptions are electronic and come with a charger.  This means the industry has to subsidise them, making them good for PR but bad for the bottom line.

Big Tobacco’s growth is in developing world markets where cigarettes are often sold individually and smokers are less worried about health effects. High tech cigarettes will never be an option in the developing world while costs remain high. This means the industry will continue to sell conventional cigarettes to poor people. It’s a matter of economics – got to keep the money-making fires burning.

Ethical questions

But here’s the ethical question. If less-harm products became the norm, would Big Tobacco be no less horrid that Starbucks? And shouldn’t we all be working to promote less-harm products, rather than poking the industry with ever-sharper sticks?

Could companies such as ours who have always declined the tobacco dollar justify helping Big Tobacco promote less harm?

Unfortunately not. For economic reasons, the tobacco industry will continue to sell conventional cigarettes, mainly in the developing world.  It will not quickly become a reduced-harm industry globally.

George Clooney sucking on a high-tech ciggy? Not quite yet. Maybe it’ll be George’s even better looking offspring.

[1] Philip Morris:

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