By Wendell Balderas
BANGKOK, Thailand, Jun 14 2019 – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) decision authorizing the sale of Philip Morris International (PMI)’s heated tobacco system, IQOS, in the United States inadvertently puts a foot in the door to increase sales of new tobacco products in the developing world.
In April this year, the FDA authorized the sale of IQOS heated tobacco products in the US. However, it clarified that it has not approved IQOS as a ‘modified risk tobacco product’ (MRTP). But PMI is riding on this ‘US-FDA approved for sale’ of its IQOS as also safer alternative to regular cigarettes to Asian governments.
In Indonesia, PMI’s local subsidiary PT HM Sampoerna signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education (Kemenristek Dikti) to support IQOS research and capacity building.
Local tobacco control advocates have criticised this collaboration claiming this is an industry tactic to attract new smokers, especially among the younger generation. Meanwhile PMI’s plans to sell even more cigarettes in Indonesia remain on track reflected by its ubiquitous cigarette advertisements.
While Malaysia’s Control of Tobacco Products Regulation requires pictorial warning on all tobacco products, IQOs is being sold as safer alternatives to regular cigarettes without these warnings.
IQOS is marketed via social media and have escaped the arm of regulators. BAT and JTI are now applying pressure on the government to allow sales of their versions of heated tobacco products.
In the Philippines, PMI claims on one-hand that cigarettes are harmful, smokers should quit and children should not buy them, however in the same breath it continues to refute evidence about smoking.
PMI’s lawyer, representing the Philippine Tobacco Institute (PTI), has filed two court cases challenging Balanga City, Bataan which has passed laws to ban smoking in public places and protect its youth from being exposed to cigarette promotions.
Also, the tobacco industry is trying to sneak Heated Tobacco Products (HTPs) into the bills being deliberated in the Philippine Senate and House of Representatives to regulate e-cigarettes (Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems).
This deception is a typical duplicitous move by the tobacco industry to weaken tobacco product regulation simultaneously deceiving the public to embrace its HTPS as less harmful than regular cigarettes.
In Vietnam, PMI’s President of South and Southeast Asia has met with the Vice Chairman of the National Assembly (NA) promoting its research and development of less harmful product.
PMI’s request to the National Assembly leader was tactical – that they should provide a legal framework to enable its new products to be developed in Vietnam, and on its part, it will provide its own scientific research as well as research from organizations in the United States and Europe.
According to a press report, the Vice Chairman of the National Assembly was ready to create favorable conditions for foreign businesses to invest and expand their business. In investment talks, the emerging evidence on the risks associated with these new tobacco and nicotine products are somewhat lost and even challenged.
Korea’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety announced in June last year that five cancer-causing substances were found in HTPs including PMI’s IQOS, British American Tobacco’s (BAT) Glo and Lil, with the level of tar detected in some of them far exceeding that of conventional cigarettes.
PMI has filed a lawsuit against the South Korean government to demand the disclosure of detailed information on Seoul’s test results of harmful substances found in electronic cigarettes.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that all forms of tobacco, including heated tobacco products (HTPs), are harmful and that there is no evidence to demonstrate that HTPs are less harmful than conventional tobacco products.
A research paper from the University of California San Francisco also concluded “despite delivering lower levels of some toxins than conventional cigarettes, PMI’s own data fail to show consistently lower risks of harm in humans using its heated tobacco product, IQOS, than conventional cigarettes.”
In April 2019 a Swiss lab found a highly toxic substance, isocyanates, emitted from the filters of IQOS. According to pulmonologist and former vice-president of the Swiss Lung League, Rainer Kaelin, inhaling very small amounts of this toxic substance can cause serious health damage.
Tobacco is inherently toxic and contains carcinogens and toxicants even if not burned. HTPs such as IQOS are not harmless, and the precautionary principle to protect consumer safety must be applied to HTPs.
Around 40 countries already ban the sale of e-cigarettes and emerging tobacco products such as HTPs. Among these are four ASEAN countries: Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Singapore and Thailand.
Others include Argentina, Australia, Brazil, East Timor, Kuwait, Taiwan, UAE, and Uruguay. The FDA’s decision should not cause these countries to roll back their ban. These countries have implemented strict tobacco control measures based on the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and have seen their smoking prevalence decline steadily.
Under the guise of ‘harm reduction’, new and emerging tobacco products such as HTPs pose new threats to society. While continuing to increase sales of cigarettes, transnational tobacco companies are aggressively selling e-cigarettes and HTPs as part of their revamped “smoke-free” image and ironic claims to be part of the solution to the smoking epidemic.
Policy makers should be aware of these veiled attempts of tobacco companies to influence governments to create exemptions for their HTPs and roll back tobacco control policies so as to mislead the public, renormalize tobacco use, increase social acceptability for their products and get more people to be addicted to their products.