One of the most popular pages on this site is our review of Philip Morris’s innovative iQOS device. That’s not much of a surprise, because iQOS has probably had more publicity than any other Heat not Burn product and it’s also the most widely available. It’s steadily rolling out beyond the first test markets and can now be bought in the UK, Spain, the Netherlands and several other countries; before too long it will be available globally, and I think it’s going to be a huge success.
When Heat not Burn UK first tested the iQOS the only sticks that came with it were mild menthols. Those were not as satisfying as they could have been, but did prove the concept. Happily, during our visit to PMI’s research centre at Neuchatel a couple of months ago there was no shortage of them in all flavours, and I got the chance to try an iQOS with a full-strength stick. I’m happy to report that it was very close to the experience of smoking a Marlboro, and an excellent substitute in every way.
Obviously, what made the difference between “Meh, this is okay” on the first iQOS test and “Wow!” on the second one was the sticks it was being fed with. That means it’s probably time to look at the sticks themselves in a bit more detail.
The baby cigarettes that go in the end of an iQOS were originally called HeatSticks, but they’ve now been rebranded as “Heets from Marlboro”. Currently Heets come in three flavours – Amber, which roughly equates to full-strength Marlboro Red; Yellow, a lighter Marlboro Gold; and Turquoise, the mild menthol version. As far as I can tell these all have the same nicotine content, and the only difference is in the flavour.
Anyway, I just called them baby cigarettes. They’re not. Yes, they look like baby cigarettes, and they come in a tiny pack of twenty, but you can’t stick them in your mouth and fire them up with your trusty Zippo. That just won’t work. Even if it did work it would be pretty pointless, because the whole idea is that you don’t burn the tobacco.
In fact there really isn’t a lot of tobacco in there to burn, anyway. Looking at a Heet, you can see that the filter seems to take up about three-quarters of its length:
Not Just Tobacco
It’s not quite this simple, but we’ll come back to that. What’s in the other quarter is the stuff that gets heated, and I’ve actually had the chance to watch it being made in the factory at Neuchatel. PMI made me promise not to put all their trade secrets on the internet, but I can tell you the basics. What they do is blend selected tobaccos to get the flavour they want, then grind them to a fine powder. This is then mixed with water and some other ingredients – vegetable glycerine to keep it moist and generate the vapour; natural cellulose fibres to bind it; and guar (a natural gum) to hold the whole lot together.
This liquid mixture is sprayed onto a conveyor belt, run through a dryer then peeled off in thin sheets. The brown stuff in the end of a Heet is those sheets, rolled up like tobacco leaves in a cigar. When you load a Heet into your iQOS a steel blade in the device cuts into the roll, and when the blade heats up it creates the vapour for you to inhale. That vapour is mostly VG, loaded with aromatic flavours from the tobacco – which is why iQOS can replicate the flavour of a cigarette in a way that e-cigs can never quite manage.
So what else is in a Heet? Well, it’s not just the filter. In fact the filter itself is very short, as you can see:
The actual filter is even smaller than the plug of tobacco at the other end, and it’s really only there to give you the familiar feel of a cigarette filter. Because iQOS doesn’t produce all the harsh combustion compounds you get from a cigarette there’s no real need for much filtration, so it can be very short. In fact if it was much longer it would probably soak up a lot of the VG vapour that you want to inhale.
After the filter is a loose roll of PLA, a very stable, food-safe plastic material. This is what does the real work; it slows the vapour down without absorbing it, giving it time to cool to a more pleasant temperature before you inhale it. This takes up almost half the length of the entire Heet.
Between the PLA and the tobacco is a short length of hollow tube, made of a similar material to the filter. As far as I understand it this is mainly to keep the blade away from the PLA and give the vapour a clear path to start its journey through the Heet. Then finally, at the end, you’ll find that little plug of tobacco.
Small But Complicated
So a Heet might look like a cigarette, but inside it’s a bit more complicated. This, and the fact they’re so small, means they’re also trickier to make; PMI had to do some creative rebuilding of some old but reliable cigarette-making machines to come up with something that would make Heets.
All this effort has paid off, though. It might be tiny, but a Heet will give as many puffs as a full-size cigarette. If you get the strength that suits you those puffs are just as satisfying, too. I had a few lingering doubts about iQOS after my first experiment with it in Poland last year, but using an identical device with Amber Heets was a totally different experience.
What’s most exciting is that, while iQOS isn’t the first generation of this technology, it’s still at a relatively early stage; there’s a lot of potential for development in there. I’m increasingly sure that HnB products like this have a very bright future in front of them.
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