Tobacco firm Philip Morris dreams of 'smoke-free world,' says Israel CEO

Philip Morris Israel CEO Roi Amit says he's here to lead change.

PURSUING A ‘smoke-free future’: CEO Roi Amit. (photo credit: LIAT MANDEL)
PURSUING A ‘smoke-free future’: CEO Roi Amit.
(photo credit: LIAT MANDEL)
“Smoking is harmful and that needs to be eradicated,” says Roi Amit. At first glance, the above statement hardly seems newsworthy. The dangers of cigarette smoke, both to smokers and those nearby, are well documented. What makes this quote notable is that Amit is the general manager of Philip Morris, Ltd, the Israeli affiliate of Philip Morris International, the world’s leading transnational tobacco company.
The executive offices of the company are located in a modern, attractive office building in the Ramat HaHayal neighborhood of Tel Aviv, where Amit, the youthful and energetic 54-year-old head of the Israeli operation, holds court, explaining the corporate philosophy of the vast, multinational conglomerate.
The vision of Philip Morris, he explains, is of a smoke-free world.
“Eradicating combustible cigarettes from the world is not an easy job. It is especially not obvious when coming from a tobacco company,” says Amit. The company, which is best known for its line of standard, combustible cigarettes, such as Marlboro, Parliament, L & M, and others, has staked much of its future on a product known as IQOS, which is a tobacco heating system that heats specially designed cigarettes without combustion, fire or smoke. Over the past decade, Philip Morris – which has more than 70,000 employees around the world, and whose products are sold in more than 180 countries – has invested over $7 billion and recruited more than 400 scientists based at its research facilities in Switzerland and Singapore in the development of the IQOS product.
INTRODUCED IN October 2019, the pocket-sized device consists of a small battery-powered charger and a holder. Disposable tobacco sticks are inserted in the holder, which then heats the cigarette to a temperature of 350° centigrade, releasing an aerosol that is inhaled, which contains nicotine.
In July 2020, the FDA authorized the marketing of the product as a ‘modified risk tobacco product,’ stating that the fact that the tobacco is heated, but not burned, “significantly reduces the production of harmful and potentially harmful chemicals.” In addition, the FDA affirmed that scientific studies have shown that switching completely from conventional cigarettes to the IQOS system “significantly reduces your body’s exposure to harmful or potentially harmful chemicals.” By contrast, standard combustible cigarettes produce over 6,000 chemicals, of which about 100 have been identified as causes or potential causes of smoking-related diseases, such as lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and emphysema.
According to Philip Morris, the aerosol emitted by the IQOS system does not adversely affect indoor air quality and is also not a source of second-hand smoke. In addition, the company reports, laboratory tests have shown that the aerosol has an average of 95% lower levels of harmful and potentially harmful constituents and is less toxic than cigarette smoke.
Amit acknowledges that IQOS is not risk-free and contains nicotine, which is addictive. Nevertheless, he says, cigarette smokers who would otherwise not stop smoking should have a less-dangerous alternative.
“The truth is,” says Amit, “that this is a smoking world. There are over a billion smokers today, and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates there will still be over a billion smokers in 2025. In Israel, there are more than 1 million smokers. These people deserve a pragmatic approach and a sensible solution that moves them away from cigarettes – one that is scientific and regulated, and delivers reduced-harm solutions or a better alternative to combustible cigarettes.”
He adds that the majority of smokers who try to quit resume smoking and do not have a practical solution to reduce their health risks.
“This is a solution that allows them to convert from combustible cigarettes through reduced exposure to harmful chemicals while not compromising on the experience,” he says.
Philip Morris, says Amit, is not trying to entice a new generation of potential smokers to use its smoke-free system. Instead, he explains, the IQOS system is intended for its base of customers who are already smoking traditional cigarettes. The “smoke-free future” vision of Philip Morris, says Amit, is expressed in three short sentences: “If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, stop. If you don’t stop, change.” The change that Amit refers to is, of course, the IQOS system.
“We believe in technology and science and have worked for almost two decades to develop and assess less harmful alternatives to cigarettes. It’s intended for adult smokers, to those who would otherwise not quit,” he says.
He adds that the product is intended for adult smokers only, not those who are underage. Studies that Philip Morris has done locally, he says, indicate that underage or non-legal smokers are not attracted to heated tobacco products. In addition, the company prohibits the advertising or marketing of its products on social networks and ensures that all information is provided only to adults over the age of 21 who have requested it in writing.
BEFORE JOINING Philip Morris almost two years ago, Amit previously was the head of Mars Israel, the local branch of the vast candy concern that distributes candy bars and chewing gum. When he first heard Philip Morris’s vision for creating a smoke-free future, he says he “was stunned” and rose to the challenge. Amit views his mission at Philip Morris to introduce the Israeli smoker to the smokeless IQOS product.
“We want cigarettes to be replaced by science-based smoke-free products as soon as possible, to the benefit of people who smoke, those who care about them, and public health. In Israel, specifically, I am here to lead a change. It’s a huge challenge, not only in Israel but a global challenge.”
In Israel, tobacco laws prohibit smoking in specified indoor public places and indoor workplaces, including government offices, hospitals, childcare facilities, preschools, and primary and secondary schools. Smoking is also prohibited in specified forms of public transportation, including trains, buses and taxis. Plain packaging is required for all tobacco products, and all smoked and smokeless tobacco products require text-only health warnings on the products. In Israel, any product that contains tobacco cannot be showcased in points of sale and cannot be advertised on the Internet.
Amit contends that the IQOS product should be regulated in Israel, but not to the same degree as traditional combustible cigarettes. Amit says that the fact that the Federal and Drug Administration in the United States designated the IQOS as a modified risk tobacco product after four years of research differentiates it from products that present a far greater health risk.
“We need the regulator to partner with us. We support and want regulation. When you talk about the reduced risk alternatives, they need to be regulated differently. We can’t do it alone. The government and public authorities have a critical role in providing clear and accurate information to consumers about this new category of products and defining the regulatory frameworks that can accelerate large-scale switching. Ideally, such regulation will distinguish products based on their potential benefits for smokers and the public health.”
Amit adds that customers need to know that there is an alternative to regular cigarettes.
“The FDA has issued an MRTP (modified risk tobacco product) for IQOS, and it should be accounted for in the Ministry of Health. Since it is a modified risk and less harmful option and you want to move the needle on the amount of smokers we have in Israel, we need to help those smokers who don’t quit, to give them an alternative that is better for them.”
But while Amit paints a rosy picture of IQOS and its benefits, not everyone agrees. In June, Italy’s Ministry of Health rejected the contention that IQOS is not as dangerous as regular cigarettes, stating, “scientific data presented… is not enough to establish that [IQOS] reduces the risk of the product compared to combustion products with the same conditions of use.”
In late July, in response to the FDA decision permitting the marketing of the IQOS system as a “modified risk tobacco product,” the World Health Organization cautioned that “some toxins are present at higher levels in HTP aerosols than in conventional cigarette smoke, and there are some additional toxins present in HTP aerosols that are not present in conventional cigarette smoke. The health implications of exposure to these are unknown.”
THE BIGGEST issue that Philip Morris faces in Israel, Amit says, is making existing smokers aware of the new system.
“We can advertise this in print, but to create an awareness on a scale that would move the needle requires reaching them through other channels, such as digital,” he says.
Amit points out that other countries have differentiated their tobacco regulations for heat-generating devices like the IQOS.
“The UK has taken many steps to embrace tobacco harm reduction,” he says. “The importance of innovation and less harmful alternatives has been adopted within the government, with the Department of Health (in England) setting the ambition to go “smoke-free” by 2030, with smokers quitting or moving to reduced-risk products.”
Other countries like New Zealand, Japan and Greece, have encouraged differentiated regulations and a transition to the use of risk-reduced products.
Amit, who himself gave up regular cigarettes in favor of the IQOS system, says that the switch from traditional cigarettes to the IQOS system takes a bit of time for smokers accustomed to cigarettes.
“We call it the consumer journey. The experience is different. You need to get used to it.”
On average, he reports that it takes smokers between one and two weeks to fully convert to using IQOS cigarettes. To date, he says, approximately 11 million smokers have switched to the IQOS system.
“If the Ministry of Health estimates that 8,000 people die each year from smoking combustible cigarettes,” says Amit, “Let’s lower that. The way to lower the death rate is through science and technology and better alternatives.”
Amit says that Philip Morris sees a high probability of eliminating combustible cigarettes in many countries within the next 10 to 15 years.
“It’s a true testament to the fact that Philip Morris is doing something right, something good. I am very proud to lead this change in Israel.”