Visit to science and production site in Bologna shows latest work to bring less harmful smoking to the masses
Tobacco giants invest billions in smokeless products
With tougher regulations and graphic imagery of lung disease on packaging, the cigarette industry has long-known it needs to adapt fast to survive.
Growing calls for a healthier alternative have left firms worried, even if more than a billion people around the world are estimated to still smoke.
Today, major firms such as Philip Morris International (PMI), the company that makes the Marlboro brand, continue to hunt for solutions that will cut smokers’ exposure to harmful toxins.
And although e-cigarettes are widely regarded as a major breakthrough in smokeless tobacco products, the search is still on for improvements.
“We soon identified it all comes down to temperature,” said Dr Nveed Chaudhary, director of scientific communications at the PMI Operations Centre in Lausanne, Switzerland.
“Setting fire to paper and tobacco has been the only way to extract the flavours inside for a hundred years.
“But we identified that if you can lower the temperature and eliminate the process of combustion you can still release nicotine and those flavours, but reduce toxicity by eliminating combustion.
“When you burn beyond 400C, you break down the structures of tobacco into the harmful chemicals that cause diseases.”
PMI opened its sprawling production facility in Bologna, Italy, in 2016.
The vast factory aims to help shape the future of Big Tobacco, creating the next generation of smokeless products and at the same time reducing the number of smoking related deaths around the world.
In the foyer, huge white walls adorned with video screens broadcast the latest company message, giving an initial impression of a tech company similar to Apple or Google.
But once inside the manufacturing facility, where the firm employs about a 1,000 people, it is hard to escape the lingering, distinctive bitter smell of the tobacco leaves.
This week PMI, which has spent more than US$4.5 billion on the research, development and production of new products to help counteract the decline in conventional cigarette sales, said its most recent product – the Iqos – could lead to as many as six million smokers in the US switching to the device.
The company claims it is far less harmful than conventional cigarettes, and the firm has sent more than two million pages of research and clinical studies to the American Food and Drugs Authority to back up its claim.
The new, battery-powered device works by heating tobacco to about 400C, rather than the 600C that cigarettes reach when smoked.
And PMI claims the result is that Iqos products have a 90-95 per cent reduction in toxicity when compared with cigarettes.
At around 80 euros (Dh340) the small gadgets are not cheap, and pricing could put the devices out of reach for many.
A packet of the tobacco cylinders, or heatsticks, used in the product is similar in cost to a standard packet of cigarettes.
By 2025, PMI plans for 30 per cent of all its products to be smoke free.
Officials said a second factory in Athens, Greece, is set to replicate the work of the Bologna centre to allow production to keep pace with demand.
International approval and regulation of smoke free technology is mixed, with some governments demanding more proof of the harm reduction potential of Iqos products, and others like it.
“Even though every cigarette packet carries a health warning, and smoking is becoming more difficult with bans in many public places, the World Health Organisation has still forecast the numbers of smokers to increase by 100 million by 2025,” said Dr Chaudhary.
“Smoking is continuing, despite people knowing it is dangerous.
“We have been working on alternatives for 25 years to help those people who continue to want to use tobacco.
“This is the reason why we have a programme to reduce the risk of people getting smoking related diseases.”