Current medical evidence suggests that nicotine, if ingested on its own rather than smoked, is no more harmful to health than caffeine. Burning is what produces the majority of the carcinogens in traditional cigarettes, increasing the risk of cancer in smokers. And it was for-profit companies—not public health advocates—that invented a way to satisfy not only cravings for nicotine, but also the behavioral habits formed around traditional cigarettes.
Since 2007 when vapor-based electronic cigarettes first hit the American market, millions of smokers have made the switch. Still, for some smokers, vaping simply isn’t near enough to the smoking experience they are used to. Philip Morris International (PMI)—the maker of Marlboro cigarettes—hopes to introduce a new game-changer for these stubborn smokers. Last year, PMI submitted to the Food and Drug Administration and application, more than 2 million pages long, that would allow them to market their new tobacco vaporizer to smokers who haven’t been able to quit or switch to vaping. For the sake of the health of the human species, we should let them.
It’s not hard to vilify cigarette companies. Even those of us who were barely alive at the time have seen the footage of the heads of the seven largest tobacco companies lying to Congress under oath about their products being neither addictive nor cancer-causing. Even back then in 1994, the science was unequivocal: smoking kills. According to the best estimates, upwards of half—or more—of those who smoke will die because of their habit. The industry’s public perception hasn’t budged since, even as there has been a paradigm shift in the technology and science behind tobacco and nicotine products. Even oil companies get better public approval ratings than the tobacco industry. Denying consumers access to what could be a life-saving product merely to punish tobacco companies for the sins of their past, however, will only add to the body count.
Beginning in the 1980s, pharmaceutical companies sought to address the smoking-related health crisis by introducing nicotine-replacement therapies (NRT) like the patch, nicotine gum, and even nicotine inhalers. But the majority of smokers who tried to quit using traditional NRTs ultimately returned to smoking. It wasn’t until 2007 that a truly viable alternative appeared on the market—not just one that satisfied the craving for nicotine, but that also satisfied the habits that go along with smoking. Vaping, though relatively new to the market, has been extensively studied and is, without a doubt, significantly less harmful than traditional cigarettes. According to Britain’s Department of Health, vapes are at least 95 percent less harmful. Studies on both animals, human cells, and human test subjects have demonstrated that the carcinogenic or potentially carcinogenic substances found in cigarettes are almost completely, though not entirely, nonexistent in e-cigarettes. This is likely because the vapor inhaled from an e-cigarette is produced from heating the liquid while the smoke from traditional cigarette is created by burning tobacco, paper, and all of their included additives. Even Mitch Zeller, the director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products regulation, noted that “if we could get all those people [who smoke] to completely switch all of their cigarettes to noncombustible cigarettes, it would be good for public health.”
Still, there are those who believe vaping is merely a means for big tobacco to “hook” a new generation onto nicotine, despite the fact that vaping is primarily a small-business industry and that—no matter how large the company offering such products—it is better for customers’ health. Nevertheless, to stop these moustache-twisting scoundrels from having their way with consumer welfare, these advocates have pushed government health agencies into creating a pre-market approval hurdle so high that only the very largest companies will be able to offer their products in two years’ time. Those that remain on the market will be more expensive and “frozen in time” when it comes to innovation, with companies unable to improve the safety or viability of their products in response to new science and consumer data, without spending millions of dollars to receive approval from the FDA.
The beauty of the soon-to-be-gone market for tobacco alternatives is its variety. There is practically an unlimited number of options to suit any smoker’s preference for taste, feel, convenience, and price. With the introduction of Philip Morris’s new tobacco vaporizer, there will be an even greater chance that smokers will be able to make the switch from traditional cigarettes to a vastly less harmful alternative, permanently. The product, called IQOS, is a cigarette-like product that is somewhere between a vape and a cigarette. Unlike vapes, it contains tobacco, but like vapes it has no combustion, instead heating up the tobacco to deliver nicotine-filled smoke. According to industry funded, but peer-reviewed research, this product is somewhere around 90 percent less harmful than traditional cigarettes.
Some worry about the effect of nicotine, and though it is to some degree addictive, when divorced from a burning cigarette nicotine operates in the body in a way that is similar to caffeine. For the same reasons that children should generally not consume coffee or caffeinated soda, they should avoid nicotine. But, for adults, there is no reason—yet—to assume that nicotine itself is extraordinarily harmful.
The way the Philip Morris folks tell it, they hope to convert all of their current traditional smokers to IQOS users. While many have scoffed at this apparently altruistic line, even the most cynical among us can see why this effort is actually in the company’s self-interest. Smoking is declining, fewer places remain where consumers can smoke, and the habit is increasingly unacceptable in society. Laws and taxes make cigarettes expensive and difficult to obtain and the high rates of disease and death among users mean that the customers Philip Morris does manage to capture will spend less money on their products over their shortened lifespans. Reduced risk alternatives, on the other hand, will extend the life of their consumers, increase profits, and maybe even repair the company’s public image.
Regardless of where the innovation comes from, we ought to embrace any safer alternative to smoking. The profit-motive of companies, large and small, is demonstrably better at creating means to help smokers quit than any government effort or public health agency. All that is left to do now is to make sure bureaucrats stay out of their way and let them innovate and yes, profit, by coming up with new nicotine and tobacco products that are attractive to smokers, for the sake of consumer choice and consumer health.