Heat Not Burn Safety Update

Over the last year we’ve seen a lot of progress for heat not burn products, with the iQOS now available in several countries and a few new devices set to be released soon. The market looks like it could be on the brink of some serious growth, and within a few years HnB could have made as big a dent in smoking rates as e-cigarettes already have.

There’s one thing still missing, though. If heated tobacco products are really going to grab a sizable percentage of the cigarette market it’s important that their makers can show they’re safer than smoking. As we’ve mentioned before, common sense tells us they pretty much have to be a lot safer, because the tobacco isn’t being burned, but there’s a distinct lack of actual data. Isn’t anyone doing the research on this? It turns out the answer is yes.

Of course, you won’t see this research appearing in the medical journals just yet, because it’s actually being carried out on behalf of the tobacco industry. Philip Morris International have invested more time and money in HnB than anyone else, and a lot of that has gone towards looking into how much risk can be removed by switching from lit to heated tobacco. Some world-class laboratories have been asked to investigate how HnB is working and what that means in terms of health effects. Last week Heat not Burn UK got a chance to visit the Cube, PMI’s European research HQ at Neuchatel in Switzerland, to find out what’s going on.

How hot is too hot?

By now everybody knows that smoking-related diseases aren’t caused by tobacco; it’s the combustion process that creates the worst toxins and cancer-causing substances. Tobacco-free herbal cigarettes aren’t any better for you than Benson & Hedges, because you’re still inhaling burning plants. However, PMI have found out that making a safe HnB product isn’t as simple as not setting fire to the tobacco.

The tip of a lit cigarette, between puffs, is at between 600°C and 800°C; when you take a drag on it this rises to over 900°C. That’s the sort of temperature tobacco burns at. However, at much lower temperatures it goes through a process called pyrolysis, where it’s being broken down by heat but not actually burning. Pyrolysis starts at around 350°C, much lower than combustion temperatures – and pyrolyzing tobacco still gives off a lot of nasty chemicals. Not as much as burning it, of course, but probably still more than you really want to be inhaling.

So the trick to safe HnB is to heat the tobacco to just below the point where pyrolysis begins. If you were wondering why iQOS heats its sticks to 350°C when tobacco doesn’t start burning until hundreds of degrees above this temperature, now you know. PMI have opted for the highest safe temperature, where there’s little or no pyrolysis going on but the tobacco is still hot enough to generate a decent vapour. Because HnB products like iQOS, Glo and PAX 2 are electronically controlled it’s easy to get them to produce a constant temperature and avoid pyrolyzing or burning the tobacco.

Tracking the toxins

Obviously the big question is, what effect does HnB have on the levels of chemicals you’re inhaling? It’s unrealistic to insist on zero chemicals, because many of the toxins in cigarette smoke are very common substances. For example, smoke contains high levels of formaldehyde – but human bodies contain formaldehyde, too. Our metabolism produces it, and there are detectable levels of it in exhaled breath. What we’re looking for are levels that might not be zero, but are much lower than you’d get from a cigarette.

To test this, PMI analysed the smoke from a reference cigarette – this is a standardised cigarette used for lab testing – then compared it with the vapour from their two HnB products. One of these is iQOS; the other, known as Platform 2, hasn’t been released yet but works in a different way. What they found was that for every chemical they tested, levels were dramatically reduced in both HnB products. The highest levels were for ammonia, with iQOS having about half the level of a cigarette and Platform 2 around 40%. Is that enough to worry about? No; even cigarette smoke doesn’t have anywhere near enough ammonia to be an issue. For the other chemicals they tested levels were reduced by at least 80%, and in most cases 90 to 95%. Overall it looks like HnB eliminates more than 90% of the harmful chemicals found in cigarette smoke.

One impressive point about PMI’s research is that they’ve been extremely thorough. Different agencies have different lists of chemicals in smoke that concern them. For example the FDA have a list of 28 different substances; the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s list has fifteen. To be on the safe side, Philip Morris have simply combined everyone else’s lists; they test for fifty-eight different chemicals – far more than anyone else does.

Attention to detail

PMI aren’t just measuring what’s in the vapour; they’re also testing smokers who’ve switched to their HnB products to see how they compare with people who’ve either quit entirely or continued to smoke. What they’re doing here is looking to see if switchers’ blood chemistry is more like a smoker or a quitter. For every chemical they’ve tested – including carbon monoxide, benzene and acrolein – HnB users either have identical levels to smokers who’ve quit entirely or (for acrolein) the level is slightly higher than a quitter but much lower than a smoker.

At Heat not Burn UK we might not be scientists, but we do know how science is supposed to be done. The research that’s being carried out on the health effects of HnB is very good science. It’s extremely thorough and detailed. The actual analysis is being carried out by independent labs, which should deal with any accusations of bias. PMI are being completely open about the experimental methods, so anybody who has doubts can replicate the research themselves.

Why so modest?

That leaves one question: With all this research to back them up, why aren’t PMI shouting from the rooftops about how safe HnB really is? Most likely that’s down to an understandable wariness of being sued. If they say that iQOS is 90% safer than smoking, and then at some point in the future evidence shows it’s only 89.9% safer, how long is it going to be until swarms of Californian lawyers descend on them with a fistful of class action suits? Not long, probably.

So, for now, they’re playing a cautious game. The data is there, and steadily growing. Sooner or later it will be presented to some government agency, probably the FDA, and they’ll confirm that these products are much safer than smoking. That’s when the manufacturers will start publicising it. Until then we’re just going to have to rely on common sense.

glo from BAT – iQOS’s latest rival

Philip Morris have been watching the Japanese tobacco market with interest, and probably quite a lot of satisfaction, this year. Japan was the first major test market for their iQOS heat not burn product, and it’s performed remarkably well. In September 2015 the HeatSticks it uses to create vapour accounted for 0.7% of the country’s cigarette sales; twelve months later that had risen to 5.2%. PMI say that around a million Japanese smokers have switched from traditional cigarettes to iQOS, and that 70% of people who’ve tried the device have fully switched.

Now the iQOS could have a fight on its hands, as British American Tobacco prepare to launch a rival product in mid-December. BAT are already testing a hybrid e-cigarette/HnB product, the iFuse, in Romania (I’ve tried it, and will write about it soon) but this new one is going to be exclusive to Japan for a while.

Japan is an interesting market for HnB products. Strict rules on nicotine-containing liquids mean that e-cigarettes, which the tech-happy Japanese would be expected to enjoy, are still rare. That means the only real competition for HnB is traditional cigarettes, so it’s the perfect place to see how many smokers are willing to switch. For BAT there’s a bonus; they also get to see how their new device performs against the already-established iQOS.

glo-ing with satisfaction?

So anyway, let’s look at BAT’s latest product. It’s called glo, and the concept is very similar to iQOS. The device itself is a bit different, and as expected there are positive and negative aspects to those differences. Overall, however, it looks pretty interesting.

Like iQOS, glo is fed with cigarette-like tubes which are inserted into the unit and heated. These have a filter on top of a stick of reconstituted tobacco, which probably also has some propylene glycol and other additives to help generate vapour. BAT are calling them Neostiks, and say each one should last about as long as a regular cigarette – a dozen puffs or so. As far as pricing goes they also cost about the same as cigarettes; in Japan a pack of 20 Neostiks will sell for 420 Yen, which is roughly the same as a pack of BAT’s Kent king size.

When glo launches there will be three Neostik flavours available: Bright Tobacco, Intensely Fresh (a menthol blend) and Fresh Mix, which has a less dominant menthol flavour. They’ll all carry the Kent brand initially – it’s one of the leading brands among Japanese smokers – but if it rolls out globally expect to see differently branded sticks and possibly a wider range of flavours.

Like iQOS, but more so

As for the actual device, it follows the basic iQOS system – insert a Neostik into the top, turn it on, wait for it to heat up then puff away as normal. Visually it’s very different, though. Where iQOS is a pen-style device, glo looks more like a small box mod. The case has an oval profile and is very uncluttered; there’s a laser-etched logo and a ring-shaped LED indicator on the front, and on top a large button and the socket for the Neostik. BAT say they aimed for the simplest interface they could manage, and the single button controls everything on the glo. That’s actually not too hard, because like iQOS – and unlike a box mod – there aren’t a lot of settings to manage. Basically all you have to do is turn it on and off.

So why have BAT gone for this larger format? PMI deliberately made iQOS as small and slim as possible, to keep it as close as they could to the size and weight of a traditional cigarette. There’s a down side to that, though – battery life. The iQOS handset simply doesn’t have enough space for a lot of power storage, and a full charge will be mostly used up in vaping a single HeatStick. It does come in a portable charging case that can recharge the handset on the go, but there’s an enforced break of about ten minutes between HeatSticks while it tops up.

By going with the box mod style, BAT have given themselves a lot more space for batteries – and it shows. They claim that a fully charged glo holds enough power to vape over 30 Neostiks. If that holds up in real-world use it means a single charge should last most smokers a full day, which makes it a lot more practical.

Gambling on power

So there are real advantages in the glo’s bulkier dimensions, but it’s definitely a gamble on BAT’s part. It’s likely they’re hoping that smokers will value the extended battery life enough to use a device that’s less familiar in shape (and a good bit heavier) than iQOS. One advantage of them both being tested in Japan is that they can compete head to head; apart from the size they’re similar enough in concept to make for a fair comparison.

There is one other difference between the two, which is that glo heats its tobacco sticks to a significantly lower temperature. iQOS runs at around 350°C, while glo reaches 240°C. The lower temperature is likely to mean fewer toxicants in the vapour, but the big question is what impact it has on the user experience. If the vape itself is less satisfying that’s going to count against it.

BAT say that lab tests show that glo vapour eliminates around 90% of the toxicants found in cigarette smoke, although they’re being careful not to make any health claims right now. They are emphasising that it’s less messy than smoking and doesn’t leave a strong smell on clothes. As far as price goes, the glo handset will sell for around 8,000 yen, which is about $77. That makes it roughly 20% cheaper than iQOS in Japan. If glo rolls out in the UK it will be interesting to see how it’s priced, because iQOS is currently selling for £45. If the same price difference carries across that will put it at about £36. Of course the real cost of these systems is in the tobacco sticks, which aren’t much cheaper than traditional cigarettes.

Overall glo looks like an interesting device. Anyone who’s used a box mod is unlikely to be bothered by its size and shape, so the real question is how smokers will take to it – and, of course, what the actual vapour is like. BAT have invested heavily in it, though, so it’s probably safe to assume their consumer trials have been positive. Hopefully UK smokers will soon get a chance to try it, too.

How safe are tobacco vaporisers?

Rumours are circulating that tobacco vaporisers and other heat not burn products might not deliver on the reduced harm that justifies the products’ existence. Not all these health claims are new, of course – they’re as old as the products themselves. Heat not burn probably has more potential now than ever before, though. Earlier attempts to sell the technology failed, probably because it was just too different from what smokers were used to.

That’s all changed over the last few years. The popularity of electronic cigarettes has grown at a stunning rate, and despite the fake concerns of many public health charities almost all the people who use them are, or were until recently, smokers. The key point about that is that by any sensible definition e-cigarettes are far more different from traditional cigarettes than any heat not burn product is. E-cigs don’t even contain any tobacco, while heat not burn products do. In fact most of the ones in the pipeline just now include something that’s recognisably like a cigarette. The only exceptions are loose tobacco vaporisers like the excellent PAX 2. Phillip Morris’s iQOS uses cigarette-like tobacco sticks, while RJ Reynolds’ Revo looks just like a cigarette and even works like one; you simply put it in your mouth and light the end.

So the companies interested in heat not burn technology are gambling that if smokers are willing to switch to something as unfamiliar as a tank full of liquid with a battery to heat it, they’ll be even more enthusiastic about something that retains the familiar tobacco. They could be right; although vaping has become widely accepted among smokers there’s still a significant number who aren’t tempted.

The fear industry

The problem is that heat not burn is still at the stage where it’s very vulnerable to health scares. E-cigarettes have suffered badly from this; media coverage has been so bad, and misinformation from anti-vaping groups so vicious, that a majority of American smokers believe vaping is at least as harmful as smoking; the truth is it’s at least 95% safer. If so many terrifying rumours can be spread about vaping, though – where users are inhaling vaporised liquid – what can the fearmongers do with a product that contains actual tobacco?

It’s complicated by the fact that heat not burn is a much broader category of device than e-cigarettes. There’s an incredible variety of vapour products, but no matter how different they look, they all function in basically the same way. The battery heats a coil, which draws up liquid through the wick and vaporises it. Once you’ve shown that one e-cig is relatively safe to use, you can be pretty sure that your conclusions apply to all e-cigs.

Heat not burn is different. Some devices heat loose tobacco in a chamber, using an electric heating element. Others wrap the element around a paper tube of tobacco. Revo doesn’t have any electronics at all; it uses a charcoal pellet to generate heat. These devices share the same basic principle – heating tobacco to liberate flavoured vapour and nicotine – but they work in very different ways. That means conclusions drawn from studying one product don’t mean much for others.

The product that’s causing the most concern is Revo. How much of that is down to the fact that it looks just like a cigarette, it comes in packs just like a cigarette and it’s used just like a cigarette? Who knows? There are some legitimate reasons to worry, though. For a start, heat not burn isn’t an entirely accurate description of the Revo. The tobacco isn’t burning – in theory, at least – but the charcoal pellet that heats the whole thing certainly is.

How much burning is too much?

Burning charcoal is a notorious producer of carbon monoxide; lighting half a dozen disposable BBQ grills in a closed room is an increasingly popular way of committing suicide. The level of carbon monoxide emitted by a Revo is obviously much lower – but regularly inhaling small doses of CO is one of the most dangerous things about smoking cigarettes. The constant respiratory stress caused by the gas eventually damages arteries and leads to heart disease. The fact that Revo relies on charcoal has to be a point against it.

There are also questions about what exactly the Revo is vaporising, and even if vaporising is all it’s doing to the tobacco inside. Electronic devices, like iQOS, can maintain precise control over the temperature of the heating element. There’s almost no way an iQOS or PAX 2 is going to burn the tobacco you load in, unless you abuse it. Is the same true of the Revo? RJ Reynolds say so, but it’s hard to be sure. Because it does involve combustion, adding more oxygen to the process can raise temperatures. Take an unusually hard puff, or use it outside on a windy day, and the temperature could easily spike above the point where the tobacco is actually burned.

There’s no evidence that this is happening with Revo, but it’s certainly a theoretical possibility. Even in normal use the tip gets hot enough that many of the chemicals found in tobacco smoke can be vaporised. These include acetone and ammonia, as well as the monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) that make tobacco smoke many times more addictive than pure nicotine.

It’s still pretty safe

On the other hand, while these worries are real, they probably aren’t very significant. It still seems to be a no-brainer that, because the tobacco inside isn’t being burned to ash like it is in a cigarette, Revo is going to be much less dangerous than a traditional smoke. There is also a spectrum of risk with heat not burn products. Electronic devices are likely to produce a far cleaner vapour than anything that involves combustion. Are they as safe as e-cigarettes? Because they contain tobacco, probably not. Are they safer than burning anything and inhaling the result? Yes, they almost certainly are.

So far there’s no evidence that even begins to suggest smokers shouldn’t try heat not burn. Even a Revo is going to be a lot safer than a normal cigarette; iQOS should approach the safety of a typical e-cig. If you’re already a smoker, and thinking about giving heat not burn a go, safety is not something that should affect your decision. Compared to smoking they’re safe enough; that’s what matters.

Big Tobacco and Heat not Burn – friend or foe?

Right now the big tobacco companies are major players in the Heat not Burn market. Apart from loose-leaf vaporisers like the PAX series, all the products that are set to go global this year are produced by cigarette manufacturers. At first glance that makes sense; after all they already sell tobacco products, and HnB is a logical addition to their range.

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Does a good vaporiser have to be expensive?

Unless you live in one of the markets where the tobacco companies are trialling their Heat not Burn products, the best way to start vaporising tobacco right now is to get yourself something like the PAX 2. These devices aren’t cheap though, so it’s natural that many people would like to see something cheaper. It’s just as natural that there are cheap alternatives on the market, many of them made in China.

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How safe is Heat not Burn?

One of the things you’ll hear a lot from anti-smokers is that 70% of smokers want to quit. If you actually talk to smokers you’ll probably hear a very different answer. Most of them don’t want to quit at all, because the truth is they enjoy smoking. They know they should quit, because smoking is undeniably bad for your health, but that’s not quite the same as actually wanting to. If scientists announced tomorrow that they’d got it all wrong and smoking was completely safe, you can bet nobody’d be interested in quitting. The appeal of Heat not Burn products is that, potentially, they can offer the enjoyment of smoking without most of the health risks. That raises a crucial question: How safe are HnB products really?

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Heat not Burn and e-cigs – what’s the link?

It’s been said a few times that the amazing rise of e-cigs is what’s opened the way for Heat not Burn technology. The concept has been tried before, and failed every time – but not because there was anything wrong with it. The idea was just too different, and most smokers were happy enough with what they had. If you wanted to inhale nicotine you lit a cigarette – it was that simple.

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Loose leaf vaporisers – the PAX 2 by Ploom

Heat not Burn products often get compared to electronic cigarettes, and in many ways it’s a good comparison. After all they’re both alternatives to smoking that work by letting users inhale a flavoured vapour instead of actual smoke. There are some differences though. All e-cigarettes work in the same way; they have a battery, heating coil and liquid reservoir. The shape and size of the parts might vary, but they all have the same basic parts – even the disposable cartomisers that some models use contain the coil and liquid.

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Heat not Burn – Can it help you quit smoking?

The technology that goes into a Heat not Burn device is interesting, and so is the history behind them. It’s easy to forget about why they were developed in the first place, though. Heat not Burn exists because cigarettes are dangerous – but people smoke them anyway. The whole idea behind the technology is to offer smokers an alternative, one that will simulate smoking but without the actual smoke.

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A history of Heat not Burn

Heat not Burn, or HnB, is being hailed as the latest alternative to smoking. A range of new products are already on the market; more are in consumer trials and should be rolled out soon. By keeping the flavour and nicotine content of real tobacco, but taking away the toxic substances created by burning it, the aim is to keep the pleasure of smoking but eliminate most of the risk. The tobacco companies believe the popularity of e-cigarettes have opened the door; suddenly, for the first time, long-term smokers are willing to try new ways to get their nicotine. It hasn’t always been like this.

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