Big Tobacco’s efforts to move beyond harmful cigarettes that people are increasingly ditching and into other products received a setback, after a Food and Drug Administration panel rejected a claim that heated tobacco devices were safer than smoking.
The device in question, developed by Philip Morris and branded as IQOS, is already available in markets around the world, proving to be especially popular in Japan. It may look like a modern-day vaping device, but it’s not an electronic cigarette or anything similar. Instead, it heats tobacco — rather than burning it, as is the case with cigarettes — and supposedly only releases a cloud of nicotine for the user to inhale.
Or so tobacco giant Philip Morris wants us to believe. The company, which develops the famous Marlboro and other cigarette brands, says the IQOS device is better for people’s health than smoking, because it does not produce all the many harmful — and carcinogenic — chemicals found in the burning tobacco of cigarettes. It told the FDA panel that “scientific studies have shown that switching completely from cigarettes to the IQOS system can reduce the risks of tobacco-related diseases.”
Burning Issue: Heated Tobacco
The FDA panel considered Philip Morris’ contention and examined its heated-tobacco device and, in an 8 to 1 vote, rejected the company’s claim that what’s also known as a “tobacco stick” is safer than cigarettes. This is not the end of the matter, however — only a step along the way. The advisory committee was making a recommendation to the FDA, as it decides whether to include IQOS under its new “modified risk” category. This is part of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act passed by Congress in 2009 that seeks to encourage companies to develop alternatives to tobacco cigarettes.
It is a race against time, with people’s health — and lives — at risk. Every year in the United States, close to half a million people die from tobacco-related diseases, over 40,000 of them from secondhand exposure to smoke. It adds up to a shocking 1,300 deaths from cigarettes every day.
The World Health Organization’s advice on heated tobacco products is that “there is no evidence to demonstrate that [they] are less harmful than conventional tobacco products. Some tobacco industry-funded studies have claimed that there are significant reductions in the formation of and exposure to harmful and potentially harmful constituents, relative to standard cigarettes. However, there is currently no evidence to suggest that reduced exposure to these chemicals translates to reduced risk in humans.”
E-Cigarettes as a Real Alternative?
Unlike some other countries — notably Britain — the United States has yet to promote electronic cigarettes as an effective way to give up smoking and become healthier. In the UK, even the National Health Service is now supporting vaping as the way forward in the battle against tobacco and disease. It says using electronic cigarettes — even disposable, lookalike e-cigarettes like an NJOY King 5 Pack — is among the most effective methods of quitting there is.
There is no heated or burning tobacco in electronic cigarettes; only the nicotine that smokers crave, along with various types of flavors. A new study that followed smokers who vaped instead as a way of quitting for two years found no adverse health impacts from using electronic cigarettes.
All this comes as the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Brenda Fitzgerald, has been forced to quit following revelations that she held investments in tobacco companies. As Politico, the site that broke the story, noted: “Buying shares of tobacco companies raises even more flags than Fitzgerald’s trading in drug and food companies because it stands in such stark contrast to the CDC’s mission to persuade smokers to quit and keep children from becoming addicted.”