Heat not Burn takes off in South Korea

When someone mentions Korea most of us think of the mad regime in the North. That’s a pity, because South Korea is much nicer – and, if you’re a fan of Heat not Burn, it’s also a lot more interesting right now. South Korea is now an expanding market for the leading HnB products, so much so that a local company is planning to join in.

Unlike its bizarre Stalinist neighbour South Korea is an advanced industrial country, with a relatively low smoking rate of 19.9% – slightly lower than Germany, but slightly higher than Japan. It also has tough anti-smoking laws that make it illegal to light up in almost any public place. The government is pretty serious about persuading its citizens not to smoke.

Unfortunately it has a couple of serious problems. The first, and probably the biggest, is the army. The country has the world’s sixth-largest standing army and second-largest reserves; in total it can mobilise 3.7 million troops, and all South Korean men have to do an obligatory 21 months of military service. This is a great way to defend against insane, highly militarised neighbours, but not so good if you’re trying to stub out smoking.

Soldiers smoke, often because it gives you something to do while you wait for the army to decide what’s happening to you next, and lots of Koreans pick up the habit while they’re in uniform. That 19.9% smoking rate? It breaks down into around 5% of South Korean women, but about 40% of men.

At the same time, vaping hasn’t really taken off in Korea the way it has in the UK or USA. It is possible to buy e-cigarettes, and there are some local manufacturers, but it hasn’t made a big dent in the smoking figures. Now, major tobacco companies are wondering if Heat not Burn can do a better job.

Here comes iQOS

HnB products are very new to the South Korean market; Philip Morris released its popular iQOS device on 27 May, and now has two stores in Seoul (if you like Korean music you’ll be pleased to hear that one of them is in Gangnam). They’re also selling the iQOS through the CU convenience store chain, which has about 3,000 branches across the country.

Philip Morris say they don’t have any firm sales figures yet but are seeing “growing popularity”. That sounds about right; an employee at a CU store says, “They have been all sold out every day.” It wouldn’t be surprising if this is the case because iQOS continues to do very well in Japan; it took a 0.8% share of the cigarette market in the first quarter of 2016, but had climbed to 4.5% by the end of the year. PMI say it’s now at around 7%.

With the iQOS apparently doing well in South Korea, British American Tobacco are aiming to introduce their rival Glo device in August. Glo is a similar format to iQOS and BAT Korea say they’ll be selling it at a slightly lower price. If they can get the device and its NeoStiks into enough shops it’s likely to catch on too.

A home-grown rival?

The global tobacco companies can’t expect to have it all their own way, though. HnB devices are consumer electronics, and when it comes to developing and manufacturing these South Korea is one of the world’s giants. The country that’s home to companies like Samsung and LG isn’t likely to let imported electronics flood its home market, is it?

No, it’s not. Clearly impressed at the popularity of the new technology, one of South Korea’s own tobacco companies is already looking at moving into the market. KT&G (it stands for “Korea Tomorrow & Global”, but used to be “Korea Tobacco  Ginseng”) is the country’s largest tobacco manufacturer. It’s a major player locally, with 62% of South Korea’s cigarette market, and its Esse superslim brand is also popular in Russia and Eastern Europe.

Now KT&G want to release a HnB product to take on Glo and iQOS – and they’re not hanging around. According to the company they’ve been watching the heated tobacco trend since 2012 and want to have their own device on the market by the end of this year.

That’s quite an ambition. If they can pull it off, they’ll be in on the ground floor with PMI and BAT. The multinationals will have a bit of a head start, but not enough to let them build up real dominance, and that’s likely to be balanced by consumers’ familiarity with KT&G brands.

The real question is what will the product be like? Unfortunately KT&G haven’t released any details yet, but if they think they can get in on the shelves by the end of the year – even as a trial product – then its design must already be fairly advanced. A HnB device isn’t something you can just throw together; PMI have invested more than $3 billion in iQOS so far, and BAT can’t have spent much less on Glo.
iQOS is the latest version of a basic concept first trialled in 1998, as Accord, then redeveloped in 2007 as Heatbar.

 

So will it happen?

If KT&G are going to have any chance at all of getting a product on the market by December, it would need to be pretty much ready to go into production by this point. That means it would need to have been tested already, and probably tried by a good number of consumers to get their feedback on it. If this has been done, it’s been done unusually discreetly – we can’t find any details or images of a KT&G device anywhere.

Of course, South Korean companies are very good at keeping innovations quiet until they’re ready to start marketing them, so it’s very possible that KT&G really do have a product ready to launch over the next few months. If they do, it will be interesting to see how it compares to
iQOS, Glo and other existing devices. Hopefully we’ll know more about it – and whether it will be marketed outside South Korea – soon.

What Effects Might Heat Not Burn Have?

As Heat not Burn products become more popular they’re steadily generating debate among the public, health activists and scientists. So far, the medical profession want to know how much safer they are than traditional tobacco products. Activists want to know if they’re part of a cunning plot to create more smokers. Smokers want to know how good they taste. This already seems like quite a lot to discuss – but it turns out some people are already thinking a lot further.

A few days ago Heat Not Burn UK had the opportunity to interview David O’Reilly, the director of science, research and development at British American Tobacco. David is a real expert on HnB and I had a fascinating discussion with him (so expect to see his name a few  times on this blog over the next month or so), and he’s been thinking way ahead of just about everyone else I’ve spoken to.

This Is The Future

One thing David was very clear on is that BAT, like Philip Morris, see non-combustible products as the future. While I was talking to him I noticed that he mentioned, more than once, moving to HnB. Eventually I asked him if he saw it as expanding their product range or repositioning it. “Our customers are moving to safer products,” he said. “We can move with them, or go out of business.” So BAT definitely seem committed to technological change.

What I hadn’t thought about was how far-reaching these changes could be. One of the products we talked about was Glo, BAT’s heated tobacco product. Glo uses “Neostiks”, similar to the Heets that feed PMI’s iQOS, and as you probably know there really isn’t a lot of tobacco in these. David explained just how inefficient a traditional cigarette is; about 90% of the tobacco in it ends up either in the filter or escaping as sidestream smoke; only about 10% of it is actually inhaled.

With a Glo this inefficiency just doesn’t exist. A Neostik has a filter but, like the one on a Heet, it’s mostly just there to give a familiar cigarette-like fee; it’s small and permeable enough that it traps very little of the vapour. Meanwhile there’s no sidestream problem either. In fact once a Glo is powered up and at working temperature it’s generating vapour constantly, but this stays in the heating chamber until you take a puff and inhale it – it doesn’t escape.

The end result is that a Neostik contains about 10% as much tobacco as a traditional cigarette, but it’s pretty much equivalent to it; if you smoke a pack of twenty every day, you’ll probably get through a pack of twenty Neostiks when you switch to Glo – but that’s as much tobacco as just two cigarettes.

Consequences?

I have to admit, I was sitting there making admiring noises about this efficiency when David said, “Of course, we have to think about what effect that will have on the tobacco farmers.”

Well, of course we do. After all, tens of thousands of people rely on tobacco farming for their livelihood. Many of them are in poor countries, too. A 90% fall in tobacco production could have a devastating effect on their economies. Tobacco controllers sometimes argue that tobacco takes up farmland that could be used for food, but the truth is the world isn’t short of food. When famines happen, which is a lot less often than they used to, it’s generally because there’s no way to get the food to the people who need it. Cutting tobacco production by 90% isn’t going to solve world hunger, but it could make a lot of people unemployed.

Then again it might not. The truth is, right now we simply don’t know. Will tobacco production fall significantly in the first place? We don’t know. A lot of it depends on what sort of reduced-risk products smokers actually move to. If they all switched to Glo then yes, a lot less tobacco would be needed. But so far the most popular alternatives are snus and e-cigarettes. Snus is made of tobacco, and e-cigs need nicotine – which is extracted from tobacco.

The most likely outcome is that there will continue to be a range of products, including snus, dissolvables and e-cigs as well as Heat not Burn devices. Total demand for tobacco will probably fall, but not dramatically at first. From the point of view of the farmers that’s likely to be good news. If demand changes gradually they can adjust and cope with it; it’s a sudden shock that would cause mass poverty.

What matters is that people are thinking about issues like this – and they are. Ironically it’s the tobacco industry, usually painted as the villain of the piece, who’s looking into the possible future effects of changing technology. Public health tend to just dismiss the fate of tobacco farmers, airily assuming that they can all start growing organic quinoa instead. Unfortunately life is rarely that simple.

Upping Their Game

The tobacco industry has a bad reputation, and leaked documents from the 1960s and 70s show that, a few decades ago at least, it was far from undeserved. They do also deserve some credit, though. BAT’s research facility in Southampton has been trying to develop a safer cigarette for decades; now they’ve abandoned that apparently hopeless quest and moved on to alternative products instead. They might have been late to the game on HnB and e-cigs, but they’re putting a lot of time and resources into it now.

In the last ten weeks I’ve spoken to researchers and senior executives from two of the world’s largest tobacco companies, and the impression I get is that they’re very serious about harm reduction. It’s unrealistic to expect them to stop selling cigarettes tomorrow, but they seem very determined to stop selling them at some point in the not too distant future. Another thing David O’Reilly, his colleagues from BAT and their opposite numbers at PMI all stressed to me is that products like Glo, iFuse and iQOS are early iterations of the technology. Some very clever people with very large research budgets are already working on improved versions that are simpler to use and give even better performance. The future for Heat not Burn, and every other category of reduced-risk tobacco product too, is looking very exciting.

BAT’s glo – sneak preview

A couple of months ago we looked at BAT’s glo, their stick-fed iQOS rival that’s currently being trialled in Japan. It still hasn’t been released in other markets, and BAT haven’t revealed their plans for it yet, so it could be a while before smokers in the UK have a chance to try it. Just so you know what you’re waiting for, however, Heat Not Burn UK set out to track one down. It was a struggle, but last week one of our agents finally managed to get his hands on the elusive device.

Because of how our glo was obtained (no, we didn’t steal it) it didn’t come in its usual retail packaging, so that won’t be included in this review. It did come with a full pack of Bright Tobacco sticks to feed it with, so it was thoroughly tested as well as being poked, prodded and generally fiddled with. So what’s it like?

The device

The Glo is a neat, simple device. The silver oval on top slides to reveal the NeoStik socket.

The glo device looks like a small, simple box mod e-cigarette. It’s about the height and thickness of a pack of cigarettes, and maybe two-thirds of the width. The aluminium body is rounded on both sides, making it comfortable to hold, and it’s not too heavy. It does feel solid and well made, and the build quality looks excellent. The end caps are textured plastic, the metal body has a nice satin finish and there’s a laser-etched glo logo on the front.

Looking at the top, there’s an oval silver cover. On the bottom is a micro-USB charging port and a small cover that looks like it should open, but was left well alone in case it broke. After some discussion we think that’s the airflow vent; there has to be some place for air to flow into the heating chamber so you can inhale the vapour, and we couldn’t see anything else that might do that job.

The only actual control on the glo is a single button on the front. Its placement looks odd if you’re used to e-cigs; most box mods now have the fire button on one side, because that way it falls naturally under your thumb. However the glo’s button is just the on/off switch, and you won’t need to touch it when you’re actually using the device. The button itself is metal and surrounded by a ring of translucent plastic, which turns out to be LED-illuminated – but we’ll get to that.

The Tobacco

Like the iQOS, glo uses cigarette-like sticks which BAT call NeoStiks. Compared to PMI’s HeatSticks these are longer and slimmer – almost exactly the same size as a traditional cigarette. Instead of a filter there’s a hollow plastic tube, which makes sense – why fit a filter when there’s no smoke? The centre of the stick is filled with finely shredded tobacco. Actually it looks like the bottom is, too, but BAT say that’s not tobacco. It could be shredded cork or something similar.

In Japan the NeoStiks are priced about the same as normal cigarettes, as are iQOS HeatSticks. Industry gossip suggests the reason for this is that nobody’s quite sure how they’ll be taxed yet, so BAT and PMI are both playing it safe. If they end up being taxed at a lower rate the price may fall in the future.

Some of the stuff inside is tobacco. Some, according to BAT, isn’t.

How does it work?

Using the glo is very simple. The cover on top slides to one side, revealing a hole about the size of a cigarette. All you have to do is insert a NeoStik into this hole until it won’t go any further. This is quite simple, like the iQOS, as long as you don’t rush it.

Once the stick is fully inserted all you have to do is press the button to turn the glo on, then wait for it to warm up. Progress can be tracked by watching the surround on the button; this progressively lights up as the coil temperature rises, the glow of the LEDs advancing clockwise wound the circle, and when the whole thing is illuminated it’s ready to go. Just in case you miss that the glo will also vibrate with a faint buzz when it reaches operating temperature. Then all you have to do is take a puff.

So the big question is, what’s it like? The answer is that it’s very good. Our agent was lucky enough to try the iQOS and glo together, and thinks the glo is just as good at producing vapour and has a slightly better taste. This was a bit surprising, as it runs at a much lower temperature – 240°C, rather than 350°C for its PMI competitor.

Each stick gives about as many puffs as a traditional cigarette, and when the glo decides you’ve fully vaped it, the device will vibrate again and turn itself off. This seems to be aimed at making sure you don’t overheat the tobacco to the point where it starts producing nasties.

Looking at the used stick was interesting. The heat seems to be applied in a narrow ring, just below the end of the plastic tube. It’s hard to say how much of the tobacco is being affected by it. On the other hand it doesn’t matter much, because whatever the glo is doing, it works.

Conclusions

The overall concept of glo is very similar to the iQOS, but BAT have taken a different approach to the hardware. Our first impression is that this has paid off. Battery life is much better than the PMI device – although it’s hard to say yet if it lives up to BAT’s claims of a 30-stick life between charges, because we didn’t get that many sticks. The downside is that the device itself is much bulkier, and unlike iQOS you certainly can’t hold it like a traditional cigarette.

It does seem to do the job, though. There’s a satisfying amount of vapour and the taste is very good. The device itself is simple and well made, and disposing of used sticks is a lot less messy than emptying an ashtray. This is a very interesting product, and if it’s released in the UK we think it has a lot of potential.

iFUSE – the Heat not Burn hybrid

There’s more interest than ever before in safer alternatives to smoking, with millions of smokers either thinking about moving to new technology or already having taken the plunge – mostly with electronic cigarettes. E-cigs aren’t for everyone, though. Many smokers have tried them and found that they didn’t really work for them; some have been put off by misleading newspaper articles claiming that vaping is just as unhealthy as smoking; still more simply don’t want to give up their real tobacco.

Heat not Burn technology is the new hope for smokers who want that authentic tobacco taste, and although the devices aren’t all that widely available yet they’re steadily being rolled out. iQOS is now on sale in the UK, for example. By the end of the year HnB products should be on sale in a lot more places, giving a new option for smokers.

HnB or e-cigs – What’s better?

It’s likely that the next few years will see a lot of arguments about which technology is better – e-cigs or HnB. They both aim to do the same thing, but take different approaches to it, and we can safely assume that each side will have plenty of enthusiastic supporters. Which will win in the long run? Who knows? However, British American Tobacco have already tried to combine the best of both worlds with their iFUSE device.

So what’s iFUSE? Basically it’s a hybrid device that starts with a fairly standard e-cigarette, then adds some elements of HnB technology aimed at creating a more authentic tobacco taste. It’s an interesting concept, so have BAT managed to get it to work?

If you’re familiar with latest-generation tobacco industry e-cigs like PMI’s Mesh, the iFUSE will have a familiar feel to it. The designers have obviously put a high priority on making it easy to use, and they’ve done a very good job of that. It isn’t quite as simple as the Mesh, but then nothing is as simple as the Mesh – and the iFUSE has a lot more going on inside.

Externally, there are two visible components. The battery is a fairly standard looking unit about the size of an eGo battery, but with a more flattened cross-section. It feels well-made and has a nice rubberised coating which, along with its light weight, makes it very comfortable to hold. There’s a USB charging port and a single large button, which appears to be metal and has a reasonably nice clicky feel. It’s not up to the standard you’d expect on a high-end e-cig, but then the iFUSE device costs just £14.99. At the top end of the battery is a proprietary connector for the cartridges it uses, which we’ll come back to.

The cartridge isn’t visible when the iFUSE is assembled; a large cover, which BAT call the mouthpiece, slips on over it. This is in two parts – the actual mouthpiece is black plastic, and is inserted into the end of a metal cone that covers the cartridge. The cones are available in a couple of different colours – silver and gold ones are for sale through the iFUSE site, but the same site has illustrations of some more options. Presumably they’ll be available soon.

When it’s all put together the overall effect is a simple, clean-looking little device. It’s not much larger than a standard eGo-type electronic cigarette, and no heavier. It is bulkier than an iQOS, but not by much – and it feels lighter, too.



Meet the Neopod

It’s inside that the iFUSE does things differently. It’s fed with disposable cartridges which BAT are calling Neopods; these carry the Kent cigarette brand, and they come in three flavours so far: Tobacco, Crisp Blue and Winter Green. Each Neopod is plastic, slightly tapered and a couple of inches long; inside it are three components, one of them unique to the iFUSE.

At the bottom of the cartridge, where it plugs into the battery, is a standard heating coil. This is fed from a reservoir of nicotine-containing liquid, which seems to be similar to regular e-liquid for an electronic cigarette. That’s what produces the actual vapour you inhale, so no surprises there. Where the Neopod is different from a Mesh or Vype Pen cartridge is that above the liquid tank, and directly below the mouthpiece, is a cylinder of finely chopped tobacco.

To use the iFUSE you just turn it on by pressing the button three times, and take a puff. It has an auto switch, so there’s no need to press the button every time you inhale, and because it’s creating the vapour from e-liquid there’s no need to let it warm up. This is an irritation with the iQOS; having to wait for the coil to reach running temperature isn’t exactly spontaneous. The iFUSE, on the other hand, is ready to go right away.

When you inhale the coil activates, vaporising some of the liquid. This is then drawn through the tobacco capsule, heating it and releasing the complex aromatics that give cigarette smoke its taste. Instead of being artificially flavoured, like e-cig vapour, you’re inhaling real tobacco flavour.

So does it work?

The iFUSE is a very interesting concept, backed up with simple and nicely made hardware. The only problem is, it doesn’t work very well. There’s a hint of tobacco flavour, but not really very much of it. The vapour itself is also quite thin, and the throat hit isn’t a patch on the Mesh or a conventional e-cigarette. It’s no match for an iQOS either.

Most likely, the problem is that the system just doesn’t apply enough heat to the tobacco. It’s not a full-on HnB product anyway, but the reason things like the iQOS work the way they do is that it takes quite a lot of heat to get a decent flavour from tobacco – and the iFUSE isn’t delivering it. There could be potential for it with a bit more development, but right now it suffers from being neither one thing nor the other. It’s a mediocre e-cigarette, and physics is against it really working like HnB.

It’s disappointing that the iFUSE doesn’t live up to its potential, because it is a nice and affordable little gadget. The vapour delivery is what really matters, though, and it just isn’t there yet. Buy a proper HnB device instead.

 

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.