A future in which cigarettes are obsolete is within reach, says leading international tobacco company

A woman smokes a cigarette in this illustration picture taken in Paris. Pictures: Reuters.

A woman smokes a cigarette in this illustration picture taken in Paris. Pictures: Reuters.

Published Aug 20, 2022


Johannesburg - Is it possible to live in a smoke-free world?

Branislav Bibic certainly thinks so.

But the managing director of Philip Morris South Africa is convinced a lot needs to be done to achieve that goal.

“The technology exists to see the end of cigarette sales but this will not happen overnight. We need to work together with other stakeholders to have the right regulatory encouragement, support from civil society and the full embrace of science. A smoke-free future is possible sooner rather than later.”

Japan has already set the tone, with cigarette sales in the country dropping by 34 percent in the last few years.

Scientists at Philip Morris International (PMI). Supplied image.

Twenty two percent of the country’s adult smokers have abandoned cigarettes and switched to smoke-free alternatives in just four years.

And Bibic believes that this trend can be spread to all corners of the world.

He and his company Philip Morris International (PMI) have been working hard over the last few years to achieve a smoke-free environment.

The company is a leading international tobacco company evolving its portfolio for the long term to include products outside of the tobacco and nicotine sector.

The company’s current product portfolio primarily consists of cigarettes and smoke-free products, including heat-not-burn, vapour, and oral nicotine products, which are sold in markets outside the US.

Since 2008, the company has invested more than $9 billion (about R150bn) to develop, scientifically substantiate, and commercialise innovative smoke-free products for adults who would otherwise continue to smoke, with the goal of completely ending the sale of cigarettes.

This includes the building of world-class scientific assessment capabilities, notably in the areas of preclinical systems toxicology, clinical and behavioural research, as well as post-market studies.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also authorised the marketing of versions of PMI’s IQOS Platform 1 devices and consumables as modified risk tobacco products (MRTPs), finding that exposure modification orders for these products are appropriate to promote public health.

Bibic says that the company is working to achieve a bold vision – to replace cigarettes with science-based smoke-free products as soon as possible – and shifting its resources and fundamentally changing its purpose and operations.

“While cigarette sales today remain the largest part of PMI’s business in most countries, this is changing rapidly.”

Bibic added that their flagship heat-not-burn cigarette alternative IQOS has made significant strides in Africa and their aim is to increase their IQOS user base in South Africa over the next three years.

With South Africa currently being ranked among the top countries in the world in terms of smoking prevalence, Bibic says it is important to address the problem with urgency.

“According to the World Population Review, South Africa’s total smoking rate in the country is at 31.4 percent with 46.8 percent of smokers being male and 16 percent being female.

“Misinformation is threatening public health opportunities and hampering consumer rights. There is a need to realise that it is unethical to withhold access to accurate information about cigarette alternatives that can reduce the burden of smoking on society.

“We have a chance to make meaningful strides to impact public health. Addressing misinformation with facts and science is a collective responsibility to achieve a smoke-free future faster, while misinformation is a persisting threat with real-world consequences for people who smoke in this country.”

Branislav Bibic, managing director of Philip Morris South Africa. Supplied image.

He added that too many adult smokers in SA remain unaware that better alternatives to cigarettes exist.

“There is clear public demand for a collective review of the facts and science about smoke-free products. In fact, according to an international survey by independent research firm Povaddo fielded among more than 44 000 adults in 22 countries, including South Africa, it indicates that a balanced approach is needed for tobacco harm reduction success.

“Over 80 percent of all South African respondents feel that a new approach to tobacco regulation is needed, with only two in 10 nicotine consumers feeling their voices are heard or considered.

“This is supported by 75% of current adult smokers in South Africa who agree that the government needs to consider the role alternative products like e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products can play in making the country smoke-free.”

Bibic says that persistent misinformation is causing confusion and holding back adult smokers who do not quit from making more informed choices than continued smoking.

“It’s clear that accurate information about smoke-free products plays a critical role in helping adults who would otherwise continue smoking to change to less harmful alternatives.

“Providing consumers with science-based information about better alternatives, we can accelerate the decline in smoking rates, helping to end the use of cigarettes once and for all.”

Scientists at Philip Morris International (PMI). Supplied image.

“With the right regulatory encouragement, support from civil society, and the full embrace of science, a smoke-free future is possible in South Africa sooner rather than later, with cigarette sales becoming a thing of the past.”

Bibic says the draft Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill provides the country with an opportunity to make this a possibility by differentiating the way in which scientifically substantiated products that don’t burn tobacco are regulated compared to cigarettes.

He says his company’s main aim is to simply end the sale of all cigarettes.

“Quite simply, we want to end the sale of cigarettes and believe that we should stop debating on whether reduced risk products should be made available but rather how fast to best help the men and women who would otherwise continue smoking.

“It’s about striving to create a better future. The millions of men and women who would otherwise continue smoking deserve better options than cigarettes.

“Smoke-free alternatives are a pragmatic solution to tackle the global challenge of smoking by helping those who don’t quit to replace cigarettes with less harmful alternatives.”

Currently there are 1.1 billion smokers in the world. However, these numbers aren’t expected to decrease by 2025.

Bibic says this is due to the current fiscal and regulatory measures not accelerating fast enough.

“With the right regulatory encouragement, support from civil society, and the full embrace of science, a smoke-free future is possible sooner rather than later, with cigarette sales becoming a thing of the past.

“Regulating smoke-free products differently to combustible cigarettes is a prerequisite to ending cigarette sales in South Africa as soon as possible. South Africa has a huge burden of tobacco use with about 12.7 million adults, almost 30% of the population, still using tobacco products despite being aware of the dangers of its use and exposure.”

While Bibic is aware of the task they face to try and “un-smoke” the world, he says they will do all they can to achieve their goal.

“Think of any industry that has undergone a seismic shift and you’ll find disruptive innovation at the source. Car manufacturers have embraced electric vehicles; wearing a mask has become part of everyday life and recycling technologies allow us to reduce more of our waste.

“The tobacco industry is no different. With vast resources we’re committed to research and development to open the gateway to disruptive change in the tobacco industry.

“But it’s not something we can do alone. Despite all the advances we are making, we can achieve a smoke-free future faster if other companies, governments, regulators, NGOs and public health all have a voice in the discussion and embrace positive change and drive it forward.”

He adds that it is crucial that the number of smokers drastically reduces in the next few years.

“Everyone knows smoking is bad,” says Bibic. “The impact on public health is significant. South Africa is currently ranked among the top countries in the world in terms of smoking prevalence.

“Despite a 5-month cigarette ban during lockdown, stringent smoking restrictions and pending tobacco amendment bill, the country remains at twenty-three among the countries with the highest smoking rates in the world.

“It would be ideal for the world’s 1 billion smokers to quit altogether, but the indicators so far show that they will not, therefore the most pragmatic approach would be to use products that eliminate combustion, such as e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products.

“Public health experts agree that the harmful chemicals released from burning tobacco are the main cause of smoking related diseases, not nicotine.”

Experts agree that the harmful chemicals released from burning tobacco are the main cause of smoking related diseases, not nicotine. Picture: Tracey Adams

“Smoke-free alternatives generate lower levels of harmful chemicals and have an important role to play in reducing the health burden caused by smoking cigarettes.

“While we know that these products are not risk-free and are addictive, the science shows that they are a much better choice compared to continuing smoking traditional cigarettes. We also believe that, in addition to existing efforts to stop people from starting smoking and to help them quit, offering smoke-free alternatives to adults who choose to continue smoking can also have a positive impact on public health.”

He believes that society’s desire for a new approach in addressing smoking is clear and that people want change,

“According to the ‘New Approaches Required’ survey conducted by PMI, 87 percent of adults agree that governments should consider the role alternative products can play in making their country smoke-free. Scientifically substantiated smoke-free products are a better alternative than continued smoking, and embracing science and innovation represents a major public health opportunity for South Africa.”

Bibic believes that ending all cigarette sales in the next 10 to 15 years is a possibility.

“A future in which cigarettes are obsolete is within reach. We believe cigarette sales can end within 10 to 15 years in many countries. Today, science-based, innovative products that do not involve combustion offer a better alternative for those men and women who would otherwise continue to smoke. To be clear: These products are not risk- free. And the best choice is never to start smoking or to quit tobacco and nicotine altogether.

“But for those adults who would otherwise continue to smoke, scientifically validated smoke-free products are a much better choice than cigarettes. Unfortunately, political agendas and ideology are slowing progress and keeping millions of people uninformed. Rather than holding an evidence-based conversation on how best to regulate these innovative products to help adult smokers leave cigarettes behind, we are often faced with an ideologically driven resistance from some public health organisations and some NGOs.”

PMI has enlisted top international technology and scientific talent, to try and help un-smoke the world, says Bibic.

“The way to a better future is through innovation, collaboration and transformation. We can’t achieve this without the creativity of scientists, engineers and technicians. Philip Morris International has a significant presence in Switzerland.

“The city of Lausanne is home to its global Operations Centre (OC), and PMI maintains its biggest research facility, ‘the Cube,’ in Neuchâtel.

A journalist tries out Japan Tobacco Inc's Ploom Tech smokeless vaping product at the Ploom Shop in Tokyo. File umage.

“In 2009 PMI launched ‘The Cube’ – the birthplace of IQOS. This R200 million facility is home to 400 scientists. At ‘The Cube’, the company is committed to investing in novel technologies and contributing significantly to the innovation landscape. Most notably their work on developing smoke-free products that offer better alternatives to adult smokers.

“Their goal isn’t just to create the products that will transition the billion or so smokers to vapers, but to bring awareness to the data and science behind it. Smoking causes harm because of combustion. By creating products that eliminate combustion, PMI is hoping to inform smokers that alternative products can be just as satisfactory without anything near the amount of harm of cigarettes.”

The Saturday Star