Quitting smoking is quite possibly one of the hardest things to do. The cravings that each smoker around the world feels – that need to take a drag after a big meal or while out with friends or when you have to use the bathroom – is a hard one to shake. However, the health benefits of giving up cigarettes are almost immediate, with the CDC noting that from as early as one month after giving up cigarettes people cough less and have fewer experiences of shortness of breath and the risk of cancers of the mouth, throat and voice box drops by more than half after ten years.
Philip Morris International (PMI), the company that brings cigarette brands such as L&M and Malboro to TT, wants to help people quit, using their smokeless tobacco products.
The company has a smoke-free vision that would see 50 per cent of its revenue coming from smoke free products by 2025.
In a conversation with the Business Day at the PMI’s offices in Trincity, general manager Sheldon Wood said that while quitting is ultimately the decision that is made by an individual’s choice, PMI’s brands will give people the opportunity to enjoy the same flavour and enjoyment of a cigarette but in a way that would be 95 per cent safer than smoking.
Betting on smoke-free
One would think that it would be counter-intuitive for a tobacco company to transition from their main revenue earner, but Wood said it was part of the company’s overall vision to make smoking safer in particular for the 250,000 legal-aged smokers in TT.
“The reality of the situation is we are in the cigarette business where there are over a billion smokers, but we are betting on our smoke-free vision,” Wood said.
“The first thing that we always advocate is, if you are smoking, the best thing to do is stop. We don’t shy away from that but there is also the reality that there are legal-aged smokers who make a conscious decision to continue. Our vision is to provide these people who make that decision, to give them a less harmful alternative.”
One of those items already on the Caribbean market is the IQOS brand, which uses induction to heat tobacco without burning, thus releasing a smokeless, nicotine-containing vapour. Woods said that the company has not yet launched its vape products but intends to launch them within the next 12 to 24 months.
The main difference between smoking a cigarette and using smokeless options; whether vaping, smokeless tobacco aerosol or using oral products like chewing tobacco; is that it significantly reduces the levels of potentially harmful chemicals taken in with cigarettes.
For example, the IQOS heated tobacco products produces 98.9 per cent less carbon monoxide, 98.2 per cent less nitrous oxides and 89.4 per cent less formaldehyde than cigarettes.
On the other hand, smokeless options are not without their own risks.
The US National Library of Medicine indicated that exposure to smokeless aerosol products could exaggerate airway inflammation, could have the potential to increase oxidative stress and could increase respiratory tract infections. Chewing tobacco can cause several types of cancer including cancer of the mouth, tongue, throat and bladder.
Vaping can also cause lung scarring, also known as popcorn lung and or e-cigarette or vaping product use associated lung injury (EVALI ).
Asked about the health risks of the smokeless products, he said that products that were more appealing to the younger markets would lead to young smokers using after-market or illicit product that were not regulated. He suggested that vapers ought not to use illegitimate or black-market products for their vaping machines.
“When you don’t have that regulation you don’t know what you are consuming.”
Woods said that PMI is in no way suggesting that smokeless products would not be without its risks, but it would be significantly safer than smoking.
“The only thing that is risk free is to stop,” he said. “But the reality of it is if you move from cigarettes to smoke-free products it is still an individual’s choice ultimately to stop. The one thing that we can do is get you to that point where you would be at least reducing your risks by 95 per cent.”
The gateway drug to quitting
Woods said that in the category of legal-aged smokers, there were several sub categories, and PMI sought to provide a product that would give as much encouragement as possible to switch, and hopefully quit.
“You have those people that are adamant and would not change from cigarettes,” he said. “We will still continue to try and convert those through education by showing them the benefits, showing them the satisfaction that you would get is comparable to cigarettes.”
He said for others who would be willing to try, but didn’t have the knowledge of the benefits and the taste of smoke-free tobacco options, he said those people would be more open to trying these smoke-free options especially with the changes in technology.
“What would have been different in the past is that other options would not have given you anywhere close to what you would have gotten with cigarettes. The technology has advanced quite a bit, and with the advancements and the fact that we listen to what people like and don’t like in cigarettes, we have taken all that consumer information and we tried to come up with something that would give you as much encouragement as possible.”
He explained that for taste palates, TT smokers prefer the Virginia-blend formulas – which have an earthy and nutty aroma – for smoking. The flavour palate was one that had to be taken into consideration even with their combustible brands, such as L&M.
He said the company also operates within its own best practices, despite the fact that the vaping industry in TT is unregulated. They make every effort not to advertise to children or young adults, and they do not engage with non-smokers whatsoever.
He added that because there was not a satisfactory amount of scientific evidence on the health benefits of marijuana, PMI will not look at options or solutions for marijuana use.
“We are targeting existing smokers who are open to an alternative that is less harmful. So by being specific in our focus and maintaining our standards and ensuring that we communicate that these are legitimate products we can ensure that we are getting our message to the right people.”
He said the number of people making the safer choice is growing. Of the smokers in TT about 24 per cent are now “poly-users” meaning that they use both cigarettes and e-cigarettes or other smoke-free options.
He said the company is willing to work with all stakeholders including competing vape companies to regularise the industry and get more people to make the safer choice.
“Just by virtue of the fact that there are so many poly-users there is an opportunity to convert some of those users fully,” he said. “There is still an opportunity to make an impact and a difference.”