Dr Moira Gilchrist, Vice President of Scientific and Public Communications at PMI Science, discusses how technology is enabling a shift in the tobacco and nicotine market towards a future in which cigarettes are replaced by smoke-free alternatives.
The Marlboro Man was one of the most iconic and impactful symbols of the past century. Tough, hardworking, self-sufficient and an advert for one of the biggest causes of death in the UK – cigarettes – he is both reviled and revered by all those who remember Phillip Morris International’s (PMI) advertising sensation.
Today, the reality about the Marlboro Man is certainly darker; at least four of the actors who played him have died of smoking-related diseases, and this is a stark reminder of the health risks associated with cigarettes.
That is why Dr Moira Gilchrist, Vice President of Scientific and Public Communications at PMI Science has made a pledge to eradicate the Marlboro Man’s memory in aid of PMI’s transition to a smoke-free future with smoke-free alternatives to cigarettes.
Throughout her twenty year career in Science, Moira has been dedicated to driving breakthroughs to encourage adult smokers to switch to a less harmful smoke-free alternatives to the combustible cigarettes that the Marlboro man promoted.
With a £3.3bn (~€3.7bn) research budget, over the last ten years Moira and her team have developed revolutionary technology and ‘Risk Reduced Products’, and here she tells SciTech Europa about some of these new developments and why they are so important.
What would you say is the legacy of the ‘Marlboro Man’? How have changes to advertising practices and regulations helped to address this, at least in part?
History shows us that cigarette smoking is addictive and can cause certain diseases such as lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, and emphysema. The well-known risks of smoking have led regulators to impose more restrictions and higher excise taxes on cigarettes than on any other consumer product. It is clear that public policy and regulations should continue to dissuade people from starting to smoke and encourage cessation, and we support regulatory measures that have these objectives.
But it is equally clear that millions of men and women will continue to smoke – according to the World Health Organization (WHO), there will still be about a billion smokers ten years from now. What’s the plan to address the needs of these men and women? The answer, in our view, is innovation – in products and in policies.
We are working to design smoke-free alternatives for a smoke-free future, our priorities are changing. Technology that we and others have developed makes it possible to shift the tobacco and nicotine market towards a future in which cigarettes are replaced by less harmful, yet satisfying, smoke-free alternatives.
What would you say have been the biggest breakthroughs in developing these less harmful smoke-free alternatives?
The biggest breakthrough for our smoke-free products has been to eliminate the element of fire. Some people have focused on the fact that our heated tobacco products contain tobacco, which is often cast as the ‘demon leaf’, but today not all tobacco products are the same. Tobacco is not inherently that harmful unless burnt to generate smoke, which contains thousands of chemicals. When any organic material is combusted – tobacco leaves, candle wicks, charcoal for a grill and so on – the organic compounds transform into thousands of new compounds that make up smoke. Many of these compounds are harmful to health. When we heat tobacco at a temperature below 400ºC, we eliminate or minimise the production of these harmful chemicals compared with what is found in the smoke from a burning cigarette. Eliminating the combustion of tobacco is key.
Building a better product is so much easier when you can begin with a basic principle like this.
What have been your own biggest achievements and challenges thus far with regard to research into this area?
The design and implementation of our product assessment programme – that is, how we scientifically assess the risk profile of our new products versus cigarettes – was both the biggest challenge and the biggest achievement because it had never been done before. It was inspired by practices used in the pharmaceutical industry, which was my background before I joined PMI, as well as the draft guidance the US Food & Drug Administration issued in 2012.
Myself and many of my colleagues in our R&D team brought tools and techniques from the pharma industry and have applied them to the scientific assessment of our smoke-free products. We designed a comprehensive assessment program, where every step builds upon the one before it, continually clarifying the potential a product has to make a positive impact on individual and public health.
One of the biggest achievements in our research so far has been to demonstrate that our electrically heated tobacco product (commercialised as IQOS), exposes smokers who switch to it to significantly lower levels of harmful chemicals compared with cigarette smoke.
The technology in IQOS is built on the basic principle previously mentioned: it doesn’t burn tobacco. Instead, the tobacco is precisely heated by a blade that’s controlled by electronics. It produces lower levels of harmful chemicals, which means smokers are exposed to lower levels of chemicals than when they use cigarettes. But we don’t rely just on the basic principle that eliminating combustion is better. We carefully tested our hypothesis within the framework of our scientific product assessment programme over many years. We have measured that IQOS produces on average 90-95% lower levels of harmful chemicals compared to a standard reference cigarette.
When we look at all of the evidence generated in our scientific studies – the so-called ‘totality of evidence’ – it clearly points toward a significant reduction in risk compared with continued smoking.
What role will such electronic tobacco heating systems play a role moving forwards? Where will your research priorities lie when you look to develop this further?
Heated tobacco products provide a more familiar experience to people who smoke than products without tobacco. There is no single product that will appeal to all smokers, which is why it is so important to have a range of products, including those with real tobacco, where each one can be an acceptable alternative to cigarettes.
This is why we won’t stick just with electronically heated tobacco – we’ve also developed another heated tobacco product, TEEPS, which uses a carbon tip to heat the tobacco rather than a heating blade. It looks and feels more like a cigarette for those who are looking for that familiarity. And our ongoing research right now also includes smoke-free products without tobacco, which will provide consumers an even wider range of products to choose from.
What are your thoughts on recent developments in the industry, such as Public Health England claiming that vaping should be widely encouraged as a way to help people quit smoking? What more would you like to see being done?
I think that any product with evidence that it is or is likely to be safer than continued cigarette smoking should be promoted to current smokers who would otherwise continue to smoke, and they should be encouraged to switch completely to these products. Obviously, smoking cessation remains the best choice, but as mentioned earlier many smokers will simply not quit. E-cigarettes are a great option, and we have e-cigarettes in our own smoke-free product portfolio. The challenge is that e-cigarettes don’t work for everyone.
I’d like to see the regulations and public acceptance expand to embrace not just e-cigarettes, but every smoke-free product that is backed by science. This is how we will see the biggest positive impact on public health.
Dr Moira Gilchrist
Vice President of Scientific and Public Communications
This article will appear in SciTech Europa Quarterly issue 28, which will be published in September, 2018.