‘Philip Morris wants to help a billion people stop smoking’

“I agree that young people should not have access to this product, but it’s extremely important that adults do,” explained Olczak.

A CUSTOMER holds a Philip Morris iQOS e-cigarette at an iQOS store in Tokyo last year (photo credit: REUTERS)
A CUSTOMER holds a Philip Morris iQOS e-cigarette at an iQOS store in Tokyo last year
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Until today, the Marlboro Man is still considered one of the most iconic symbols of the American advertising world. Sporting his famous cowboy hat, with a cigarette dangling from his lips or resting on his manly fingers, the Marlboro Man was featured for almost five decades in TV, newspaper and magazine advertisements and on billboards. 

The main beneficiary of the Marlboro Man’s success was cigarette and tobacco manufacturer Philip Morris, which watched with satisfaction as worldwide sales grew exponentially following the commercials featuring the tough cowboy. The Marlboro Man character became the most well-known image associated with tobacco products. 

Nowadays, the Marlboro Man is considered a historical icon. According to decision makers at Philip Morris, our planet should be completely smoke-free. Three years ago, Philip Morris began working on replacing traditional cigarettes, in which tobacco is burned, with innovative heated tobacco products. Philip Morris provided the original seed money for the non-profit Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, which was inaugurated in September 2017. According to the organization, its official purpose is to speed up global efforts to reduce the negative effect of smoking on people’s health and smoking-related deaths, and eventually eradicate the use of traditional cigarettes. 

At the end of April, Philip Morris was given a huge boost when the FDA approved the sale in the US of IQOS, the company’s new flagship smoke-free product. IQOS is the first heating-based tobacco product to be approved by the FDA, which is considered the leading worldwide authority in the field of public health. 

The FDA, however, is not saying that the product is safe to use (“All tobacco products can be potentially harmful to your health and lead to addiction,” the FDA warned). It agrees, though, that from a scientific point of view, the IQOS product does however produce lower levels of toxins than traditional smoke-based cigarettes. 

“We need to show that the product meets all the required standards that protect the public’s health,” says the company’s COO, Jacek Olczak, who holds the #2 position at Philip Morris. In an exclusive interview with Maariv, from the company’s headquarters in Switzerland, in honor of World No Tobacco Day, Olczak said that it’s not a bygone conclusion that FDA approval will give an impetus to other counties to open up their markets to IQOS devices in the near future. Nonetheless, he expressed hope that they might actually read the FDA announcement, understand that this comprehensive scientific examination was led by American experts, and then make the correct decision for their country. 
IQOS devices will officially begin being marketed in the US this summer, joining 47 other countries around the world where they’re already being sold. Philip Morris has invested billions of dollars in their development and marketing, and data show that sales of IQOS and similar products reached $4.1 billion in 2018, or 13% of the company’s profits. In addition, the report showed that as of the end of 2018, there were 9.6 million IQOS users (compared with 200,000 in 2015), 6.6 million of whom are adults who smoked regular cigarettes in the past. 

“Our most important goal is to achieve a completely smokeless world, and to help the billion smokers around the world to quit smoking,” says Olczak. “Philip Morris is currently in the process of ceasing the sales of cigarettes. In emerging markets, we’ve already stopped selling burn-based cigarettes. I’d like regular cigarettes to stop being sold as soon as possible, but I know that we need to be patient and that this won’t happen tomorrow morning.”

In conjunction with its approval of the sale of IQOS in the US, the FDA has nevertheless severely restricted the level of its exposure among minors. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in four high school students and one in 14 middle school students have used a tobacco-based product in the past year, and electronic cigarettes are extremely popular among both of these age groups. Last week, the Smoke Free Israel Initiative confirmed that 17.5% of Israeli teens between the ages of 15 and 17 reported that the first time they smoked was using an electronic cigarette. 

Nonetheless, in this era of round-the-clock advertising, especially on social networks, achieving a smoke-free society is no simple challenge. Recently, Philip Morris had to pull one of its international campaigns when Reuters reported that one of its presentors was only 21 years old, four years below the minimum age the company had agreed to for network influencers. 

“I agree that young people should not have access to this product, but it’s extremely important that adults do,” explained Olczak. “If our customers don’t hear about this alternative, we won’t have achieved anything. It is critical that we control who purchases these products. Each country needs to legislate what the minimum age should be. Customers must be required to provide sellers with ID that shows their age.”

Olczak is well aware of the criticism of Philip Morris’s new vision - that it is pure greenwashing, a spin designed to sell unhealthy products by claiming they are good for the environment. Olczak claims that although IQOS and similar products are nicotine based, they are less harmful than regular cigarettes. “There will always be people who mistrust the scientific findings,” says Olczak. “But if we hadn’t offered this alternative, smokers would have simply switched to other cigarettes. I’m trying to do everything in my power to provide a healthier alternative. I’m more than happy to engage with people who are uncomfortable with our product. I believe we can solve this problem together.”

IQOS devices are already being marketed in Israel. Philip Morris is not hiding its displeasure, however, with the Israeli Health Ministry’s decision to place IQOS products in the same category with other tobacco products, which affects advertising restrictions and high tax rates. “Some countries treat IQOS the same as regular cigarettes despite scientific tests that prove that’s just not the case,” says Olczak. “For the sake of their own health, people need to understand how our product is different and change its status. As long as we are engaged in dialogue, we can reach a compromise. Things are changing every day. Every week new scientific tests are coming to light, which will assist us with the decision-making process.”

Translated by Hannah Hochner.