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iQOS in the USA – Bad timing, or good luck?

IQOS in the USA

It feels like it’s taken forever, but iQOS is now on sale in the USA. Although it hasn’t officially launched yet, Philip Morris International’s first American iQOS Store has been in “soft operational mode” for almost three weeks now. The FDA granted iQOS a Pre Market Tobacco Authorisation back in April, so PMI haven’t exactly rushed to get the shop open, but it’s there now and Atlantans have the chance to legally try Heat not Burn for the first time.

It’s easy to understand why PMI took their time picking a location for their first US shop. A lot is resting on getting this one right, after all, and this isn’t a product that’s had an easy time getting accepted into the American market. And now, after all that planning, iQOS has gone on sale when the US controversy about tobacco harm reduction is fiercer than it’s ever been.

In June this year people started turning up at American hospitals with a mysterious lung disease. Pretty soon the media found out they had all vaped before becoming ill – sometimes the day before, sometimes weeks earlier – and that was enough to spark the latest phase in the great anti-vaping crusade. Several states have already passed emergency laws to ban flavoured liquids that are “targeting kids” – although the median age of the deceased victims is 50 – and President Trump is considering a national ban.

The disease outbreak is serious. Over a thousand people have become ill and, as of 9 October 2019, 23 are dead. It’s now pretty clear that the epidemic is nothing to do with normal vaping; the culprit is black market cannabis vapes that have been diluted with Vitamin E acetate, an oil. Vaping oils is never a good idea, because they collect in the lungs and cause lipoid pneumonia – a serious, often fatal disease with symptoms very similar to the “mystery” outbreak.

However, the USA doesn’t exactly have a great reputation on vaping. Ever since e-cigarettes appeared there’s been a steady campaign to restrict or ban them, and it’s slowly been making ground over the past few years. The outbreak has kicked it into a higher gear, though, and flavour bans are cropping up all over the place. Some cities and counties have banned all vaping products – San Francisco, home of the notorious anti-vaping activist Stanton Glantz, is one of them.

Now, with anti-vaping hysteria at its height, along comes a totally new kind of vaping product – iQOS. What’s going to happen?

It’s fair to say that not everyone in the USA loves iQOS. Anti-vaping campaigners are almost universally hostile to it. Some hate it because HEETs contain actual tobacco. Some hate it because it’s made by a tobacco company. And of course some just hate it because they can’t stand the idea of anyone using nicotine without being punished with cancer.

Sadly, plenty of vapers hate iQOS too. I’ve written about that here myself, and Paul Barnes has also done an excellent post on the subject. All I’m going to say on that here is that nobody’s forcing you to use Heat not Burn, and if you’re trying to stop other people from using it you’re no better than Martin McKee or Stan Glantz.

So on the surface, with anti-vaping sentiment at a peak, this might not be the best time for iQOS to hit the US market. Supposedly sane medical professionals are saying vaping is just as harmful as smoking. Legitimate products are being condemned when, really, all the blame lies on illegal THC cartridges filled with contaminated liquid. And now people are supposed to buy something that contains actual tobacco and is made by a cigarette company?

Well, why not? Because here’s the thing; the reason it took so long for iQOS to go on sale in America is that it had to get that PMTA first. Now it has it, and that makes it the only vapour product in the USA that’s actually been approved for sale by the FDA. It’s gone through an exhaustive process that doesn’t guarantee it’s safe to use – cigarettes also have a PMTA, for example – but does mean you can be confident it wasn’t slapped together in some criminal’s basement and laced with oil.

The problem isn’t vaping. The problem is illegal products made from poor-quality ingredients. Unfortunately it’s not easy for the media and politicians to tell legal from illegitimate liquids or cartridges without doing a bit of research, and most of them are too lazy, ignorant or prejudiced to bother with that. One bottle with a brightly-coloured label looks pretty much like another, after all – even if one is filled with high-quality, safe e-liquid and the other some grotty mix of oil and cake flavouring.

Nobody is making black-market HEETs, though. An iQOS is way beyond the ability of most criminals to counterfeit. And, even if someone did make an illegal iQOS knockoff, it still wouldn’t be delivering a mist of vaporised oil. By coincidence, PMI have found themselves entering the US market with the only FDA-approved product in the whole vaping sector. If they play their cards right HnB could be a big winner here.

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