Philip Morris keen on less harmful alternatives to smoking, HK not so much

While the Hong Kong government has made clear its intention to ban e-cigarettes and other new tobacco products, tobacco giant Philip Morris International (PMI) is pushing for health authorities to look at science.

“We believe the Hong Kong adult smokers deserve a choice of better products. They shouldn’t be limited to only one decision: either quit smoking or continue using cigarettes,” says Ms Moira Gilchrist, head of Scientific and Public Communications at PMI.

Currently, there are over 600,000 smokers in Hong Kong and PMI believes its smoke-free products could be a less harmful choice for them than traditional cigarettes.

“We know scientifically that it is the combustion of tobacco that causes the production of the vast majority of harmful chemicals that lead to smoking-related diseases,” says Ms Gilchrist. “We’ve eliminated the combustion of tobacco in all of the product platforms.”

PMI has developed four new smoking products that can be simply categorized in two groups: heated tobacco products like IQOS – a device that heats tobacco rather than burning it – and vaping products that contain nicotine. The company says that eliminating burning produces an product with an average 90 to 95 percent lower levels of harmful constituents compared to cigarette smoke.

“Nicotine is addictive and it’s not risk-free. But it’s certainly not the primary cause of smoking-related diseases. It is the burning of cigarettes,” Ms Gilchrist stresses, adding that it is important to provide smoke-free choices to adult smokers.

To support her claim, Ms Gilchrist cites findings from the Royal College of Physicians in the U.K.

“E-cigarettes are not a gateway to smoking – in the UK, use of e-cigarettes is limited almost entirely to those who are already using, or have used, tobacco,” the report reads.

“Concerns about e-cigarettes helping to recruit a new generation of tobacco smokers through a gateway effect are, at least to date, unfounded,” it says.

The group suggests the use of e-cigarettes as a substitute for smoking in the U.K.

Ms Gilchrist says the smoke-free products have made their way to 45 countries and Japan is a successful case in Asia, where around 20 percent of smokers have switched to heat-not-burn tobacco.

Hong Kong-based consumer advocate factasia.org also claims that legalization of these products could lead a greater number of smokers to turn away from more harmful conventional cigarettes.

Heated tobacco products, including IQOS, are now regulated under the Tobacco Products Directive in the EU and are subject to the same regulations on nicotine-containing e-cigarettes in South Korea. U.S. regulators have not yet decided to allow them in the market.

Backing a ban

But the Hong Kong government is showing a tough stance on these smoking alternatives. It favors a complete ban rather than regulation.

Last October, Chief Executive Ms Carrie Lam said she decided that the government should ban the import, manufacture, sale, distribution and advertisement of e-cigarettes – after weighing the pros and cons of a regulatory approach as opposed to a full ban.

“The fact is: all these new smoking products are harmful to health and produce second-hand smoke,” she said in her Policy Address speech. “There is also a lack of sufficient evidence to prove that these products can help quit smoking.”

Ms Lam noted opposition to the regulation plan from various groups in the medical and education sectors. The Food and Health Bureau and the local medical community argue that legalising these alternatives might encourage youth to pick up smoking.

Professor Judith Mackay, director of Asian Consultancy on Tobacco Control Hong Kong, worries that these new ways of using nicotine or tobacco might renormalize social attitudes and acceptance of smoking.

Asked how PMI will change the mind of the local medical community, Ms Gilchrist stresses “science” again. “I think they will make their decision based on science,” she says.

Ambitious as PMI’s goal sounds, it is still unclear how the tobacco giant will shake things up in a city where authorities have already shown that they favour the more stringent measures and seems to prefer keeping these products out.

Asked if PMI would back a lawsuit for someone charged for selling these products to challenge the constitutionality of the laws, Ms Gilchrist says: “We don’t speculate on what might happen in the future.”