A Slow Burn: Current State of Heat-Not-Burn Technology

Since their false start on the market around the 2014-2015 period, tobacco product manufacturers Philip Morris and R. J. Reynolds have had to pivot their smokeless alternative and reintroduce the product to markets, especially in the wake of the substantial growth of the vape industry between 2016-2017, as well as mounting research to support vaping as a safer alternative to smoking.. A few years back, Philip Morris marketed what they called the “HeatStick,” and Reynolds, the ‘Revo.” These two devices were the newest iteration of a smokeless cigarette – another cessation tool or purported healthier alternative to smoking traditional, combustible cigarettes.

Reynolds has since ceased its manufacture and marketing of the Revo. Philip Morris has repositioned and rebranded its product, focusing on the system’s name, IQOS (I Quit Original Smoking), opposed to the “HeatStick” name. A number of other companies have joined the ranks, such British American Tobacco with their product, the Glo (important especially since BAT acquired R. J. Reynolds in 2016). Even China Tobacco Guangdong, located in the heart of the largest e-cigarette manufacturing city in the world (Shenzhen), has invested heavily in the advent of future-forward tobacco technologies. Around the world, smokeless tobacco alternatives are changing market trends. Though there are earlier examples of tobacco-vapor products, heat-not-burn (HNB) products available from tobacco manufacturers today have found new footing in the fight for market lead over cigarette alternatives, though not without scrutiny.

IQOS is one of the most popular heat-not-burn products in the world.

How HNB Works

HNB products use leaf tobacco, like combustible cigarettes. Unlike combustible cigarettes, however, HNB products get their namesake from how the base units heat the tobacco. HNB units warm the tobacco (in a disposable cartridge or cylinder) to just below the point of combustion (up to 660 degrees fahrenheit), allowing the tobacco leaves to release a nicotine-infused vapor. The user inhales the vapor through a mouthpiece on the end of the heating unit. Broken down into simplest terms, HNB devices are half cigarette, half vaporizer. For smokers looking to eventually quit without the more drastic change of using a vape and e-liquid, heat-not-burn devices claim to offer an experience more akin to smoking combustible cigarettes. Benefits include similar oral fixation patterns, such as how often the device is puffed and how long the device lasts before being empty, for examples. As with their vape counterpart, HNB products also purport to subject users to lessened concentrations of carcinogens.

Combustible cigarettes contain a laundry list of carcinogens – chemicals known to cause cancer – including arsenic and carbon monoxide. As a smoker inhales, or puffs, they intake not just the nicotine from tobacco, but countless other natural and synthetic inhalants found in cigarettes. HNB products, by contrast, heat a cartridge containing the tobacco to allow users to inhale the nicotine-vapor without the chemicals found in burned tobacco. The tobacco industry currently markets HNB products as a safer alternative to combustible cigarettes, but the World Health Organization states plainly that, currently, too little research has been conducted to make any significant claims. Despite limited scientific study, enough market research exists to put HNB products up for sale across the globe. The Food and Drug Administration still hasn’t approved any of these devices for use in harm reduction or smoking cessation.

glo from British American Tobacco is one of the main competitors to the IQOS.

Manufacture & Legality

The two most widely available and popular HNB products, available in many countries around the globe, are the I-Quit-Original-Smoking, or IQOS system, by Philip Morris and the Glo from British American Tobacco. Philip Morris International (PMI) details their IQOS on a product page from their website as being comprised of “three main components – a heated tobacco unit (called HEETs or HeatSticks), an IQOS holder, and a charger.” The heated tobacco units are the disposable components, packaged to look similar to a traditional pack of cigarettes. The IQOS heating device is the handheld piece that contains the mouthpiece to inhale tobacco vapor. That same heating device holds a small battery, which requires recharge after every tobacco stick is consumed. Connecting the heating unit to the charger refreshes the small battery, but the charger itself requires charge every so often via wall outlet. The system is certainly designed in a multi-component and convoluted fashion.

BAT’s Glo device, however, is a singular device with the heating and charging elements built together, requiring only the disposable tobacco sticks. The Glo is a simple, squat, rectangular device. British American Tobacco has also recently released a modified version of the device – the Glo iFuse. The iFuse device uses a hybrid of heated tobacco units and vape liquid, which is unique but perhaps not totally unexpected – given BAT bought out R. J. Reynolds, who have a long and sordid history in the vape market, but continue to produce more vape-oriented products.

Despite the potential fire hazard vape batteries may sometimes pose, and the continued study of the health risks of vape use, HNB tobacco products face similar scrutiny in the US. HNB devices use America’s oldest cash crop – tobacco – to retain the feel of a more traditional smoking experience, but it is exactly the use of tobacco that creates legal obstacles companies now face. An FDA scientific advisory committee recently denied Philip Morris International’s request to submit their IQOS product for classification as a modified-risk or lower-risk tobacco alternative. The IQOS and other heat-not-burn product manufacturers themselves claim to have crafted lower-risk alternatives, but the advisory committee voted 8-0 (one abstained) rejecting the claim. The FDA is not required to follow the word of their advisory panel, but on the administration’s website, at the time of this writing the status of the IQOS is pending, and public comments are currently open on the tobacco giant’s marketing and promotional materials submittals. While the IQOS awaits a final decision by the FDA, HNB tobacco products are unavailable for purchase in the US.

A number of countries outside the US, however, have already accepted HNB devices as a viable smoking alternative. In multiple cities across the EU and in the UK, in South Korea and Japan, in New Zealand, South Africa, and even Canada, HNB devices are readily available for purchase both online and at local retailers. Tobacco heating units are available in menthol and non-mentholated varieties. Product sales in countries like South Korea and Japan are particularly good, considering the relative infancy of scientific research on adverse effects. Products have been available in the UK for over a year, but have become the subject of some controversy of late, given again the lack of supportive evidence that the devices are of actual lower risk than combustible cigarettes.

ploom japan tobacco
The Ploom is Japan Tobacco’s heat-not-burn product. The heat-not-burn category is growing rapidly in Japan.

HNB in the Global Marketplace

As one of the earliest adopters, Japan is a leading country in HNB product sales. Others, like Canada, are just growing their markets in the last year. Regardless of its unavailability in the US, the HNB trend does seem to be growing on a global scale. In 2017, PMI reported more than 1 million smokers are using their IQOS systems around the world. Yet, the number of users may not see substantial increase if the FDA rejects Philip Morris International’s MRTP application. A more dire statistic for the industry may be the significant decrease in the number of smokers in the otherwise enormous US market. The global consumer market is not without a decent number of extant and long-standing smoking alternatives. Smokers, or former smokers, have myriad alternative options at their disposal and an increased awareness of negative health effects or social stigma of smoking. The tobacco market is in a long-term decline. Cigarette smoking has never been less popular. Big Tobacco has had a very hard time breaking into the e-cigarette market, and they’re hoping that these new devices can offset the decline in sales of tobacco cigarettes. If these products can help tobacco companies remain profitable while reducing the risks to users long-term health, it seems like a win-win. 

Closing Thoughts

The old empire – tobacco – is looking for any way to future-proof their export, in an attempt to stay on top of a dwindling market. If not dwindling, nicotine addiction has certainly at least evolved or transformed in the electronic age. It took 30 or so years, but the consumer has generally determined combustible cigarettes are more risk than reward. With the market shift to vaping, which does not require tobacco, it stands to reason that the tobacco industry would reinvest in itself to double down efforts to keep their product relevant. But, is the industry keeping up with market trends, or making a statement about their hope for a new standard of smoking? We really need the science to come back on this one.

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