Could 'smokeless' cigarettes kill off vaping?
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It’s late in the evening. The candles have burnt right down and the wine glasses have gathered tidemarks. As a part-time smoker, this is my favourite moment to pull out a cigarette and discuss the merits of giving up, to which everyone else agrees as they do exactly the same.
But tonight, instead of a pack of Marlboros, I take out something that looks like an iPhone, out of which pops a miniature fountain pen-shaped implement, and into this I click a stick of tobacco before taking a theatrical drag on the electronic gadget.
The device, called iQOS, could be the tobacco industry’s answer to quitters – and falling cigarette sales. Conglomerate Philip Morris (PMI) has spent over a decade and more than $3 billion (£2.2 million) developing the product, which heats tobacco without burning it to generate a nicotine containing tobacco-flavoured vapour that the user inhales, much like an e-cigarette, instead of noxious smoke.
The crucial difference between e-cigarettes and this contraption is that while an e-cig doesn’t contain any tobacco at all, this is made up almost exclusively of it, offering a closer experience to smoking. Last week, a report predicted that heat-not-burn devices – which have been available in the UK for less than a year – will overtake the sales of e-cigarettes.
Smoking tobacco, however you do it, is a terrible habit. It clogs the lungs, wrecks the arteries, thickens the blood and increases the risk of conditions such as coronary heart disease, heart attack and stroke. It is estimated that, in this country, around 80,000 preventable deaths are caused each year by smoking, yet, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 17.2 per cent of adults still enjoy a regular puff.
According to a study of 40,000 participants, published earlier this year by Ohio University, even demi-smokers run the same risks – of high blood pressure and cholesterol – as those who smoke every day. Which explains why in May, the sale of 10-packs and small (under 30g) pouches of tobacco were banned. Packs still allowed in circulation now come in a drab shade of muddy green (also known as Pantone 448C), deemed to be the world’s ugliest colour, with at least 65 per cent of the packaging covered in macabre health warnings. By 2020, menthol cigarettes will be a thing of the past, too.
So, into the breach iQOS hopes to come, a sort of halfway house for smokers who don’t like the weird taste of sucking on an e-cig but can’t quite give up tobacco altogether. It works electronically by heating up tobacco that has been ground down to a very fine powder, reconstituted into a uniformed sheet and then crimped into stick form. You insert the stick into the device and press a button that heats it to 350ºC, enough to release vapour that the user then inhales.
Dr Ruth Dempsey, part of the scientific team behind the product, says tests confirm it generates between 90 and 95 per cent lower levels of harmful compounds than cigarette smoke. “We are in the early days of this, but this really is the future of tobacco, to get rid of combustible products and change all smokers to these products, which have a genuine potential to reduce the overall health risk.”
So what is the 5 or 10 per cent of harmful compounds users inhale, if not the carbon monoxide and tar that come with smoke? “Compared to what you smoke in cigarettes, everything is pretty much reduced right out, except for nicotine, glycerine and water.”
The company makes clear the product is aimed at adult smokers who want to cut down, as a pathway to quitting completely, or those who are looking for a less harmful alternative. To date, they claim 1.8 million people worldwide have converted to heated tobacco products since the launch in November last year as experts note that millennials tend to use e-cigarettes, while tobacco-based products appeal to older generations.
The main drawback with iQOS is that the device, which costs £45, is currently only sold in three shops in London (though it is available to buy online at iqos.co.uk); a pack of 20 tobacco sticks, branded as Heets, are £8. Still, if you stick at it for long enough, it can work out cheaper than smoking. At present, the Government is reviewing how to tax heated tobacco items – as a new generation of product they have yet to receive classification under the Tobacco Products Duty Act 1979.
Lynn Fehilly, a 48-year-old office manager from south London, is evangelical about having made the switch. She started smoking when she was 15, pressurised by girlfriends who thought it looked cool, and kept it up ever since, developing a 20-a-day habit (setting her back £69.93 a week). She’d tried almost everything to stop over four years. She invested hundreds of pounds on hypnotherapy, e-cigarettes, patches and tablets but nothing worked.
“I wanted to give up for my health and the cost. I just got to the stage when I hated smoking.” She read about iQOS, bought a device and hasn’t touched a cigarette in the almost seven months since. “It just took that craving away,” she says.
“I’m now using between five and seven sticks a day, and I can’t praise it enough. My taste buds and sense of smell have improved so much. I am sleeping better, too. I spoke to my doctor about it when I first got it, and he said I should use it for a year and then slowly, gradually, cut down. But I’ve got to seven months and already started cutting down my use, because I feel so good on it.”
Now she goes to the gym more frequently and has taken up cycling, something she didn’t have the motivation for before.
With most of these products, we have a trade-off between how safe they are and how satisfactory smokers find them as a substitute
John Britton, the director of the UK’s centre for tobacco and alcohol studies, believes the jury is still out on how successful heated tobacco products might be. “With most of these products, we have a trade-off between how safe they are and how satisfactory smokers find them as a substitute. Even with a very healthy scepticism of the validity of Philip Morris results, it is highly likely these represent a significant step towards less harmful tobacco products.”
He also thinks they will end up “on the wrong side of the risk spectrum” compared to e-cigs, although science has yet to catch up with this theory. “Because you are heating tobacco, intuitively I would expect them to carry more toxins.”
Dr Dempsey is equally under no illusions. “It is not safe, it is not risk free. We are not saying it is. These are early days. The key concern is to ensure that it is clear this is meant for smokers – it is not meant for non-smokers or even ex-smokers – and the best option for people is to stop smoking completely.”
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