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E-cigs don’t work everywhere – Heat not Burn does

I’m a freelance writer, and I love e-cigarettes. Since I switched to vaping my desk isn’t cluttered with smelly ashtrays anymore, and I don’t have to brush ash off my keyboard twice a day. I spend most of the day at my PC, so I can keep a charger on the desk for my batteries and there’s a nice long USB cable for pass-through mods. The top shelf in one side of the desk holds an assortment of e-liquids; in my job, vaping works perfectly.

On the other hand, before I became a writer I spent years in the British Army. Like many soldiers I smoked, and I remember a lot of early mornings happily puffing away in some cold, wet forest. No matter how soaked, frozen and miserable you get, a cigarette is a reliable way to inject some very welcome morale into your life.

The thing about cigarettes, of course, is that they couldn’t be simpler. You take one out the pack, stick the brown bit in your mouth and set fire to the other end. Unless you’ve let them get soaked, or you’ve sat on the packet and squashed them (a waterproof tobacco tin will avoid both these issues) they’re guaranteed to work.

War is hell – for e-cigs

But how is an e-cig going to cope with the hardships of a soldier’s life? All the liquid is probably going to leak out, turning the contents of your pocket into a slippery mess. The tank’s probably going to get broken the first time you trip over a stump in the darkness and fall flat on your face. The ability of most box mods to survive being soaked with rainwater is pretty dubious. Worst of all, your batteries aren’t going to last forever and there won’t be any USB ports in the tree you’re living under. E-cigarettes are great as long as you’re surrounded by civilisation, but they’re not going to work out in the field.

It isn’t just soldiers, either. What if your workplace is the deck of a trawler? The first wave that knocks you down, and leaves you flailing around in a pool of seawater and fish guts, is going to destroy every electronic device in your pockets. Let’s not even start thinking about rebuilding a coil in a cramped cabin that’s rolling through sixty degrees.

So it’s pretty obvious that there are some people who e-cigarettes just aren’t going to work for. But does that mean they’re doomed to a lifetime of smoking? Not so fast. There’s probably a heat not burn product that’s going to work just fine.

What’s the solution?

Last month I visited Philip Morris International’s research facility at Neuchatel in Switzerland, where they’re making the Heets that feed their iQOS device as well as working on the next generation of HnB technology. It was a very interesting visit – I’ve already discussed their latest research on safety – and left me feeling very optimistic about the future of heated tobacco products. There were some lively discussions, too, and during one of these I explained that I’d been a soldier for a long time and, based on my experiences, I didn’t think iQOS was going to be much use in the field. The PMI rep didn’t even blink. “We know,” she said. “That’s why we’re working on three other products.”

One of those products is the Mesh e-cigarette, which is already on the market. I have one, and it’s pretty good; the Mesh is an extremely simple and fairly sturdy gadget, and its disposable cartridges are more compact and probably a lot tougher than cigarettes, but if you’re doing hard work outdoors in bad weather it has the same drawbacks as any other e-cig; it isn’t very waterproof, and it needs charged a couple of times a day. Then there’s a completely different product in the development pipeline that isn’t HnB, but isn’t an e-cig either; it uses a chemical reaction to create a nicotine-containing vapour. The interesting thing about this is that it doesn’t need any batteries, so it might be a good solution for people who don’t have regular access to a charger; that depends on how robust it is, and I can’t comment on that because I haven’t seen one yet.

That’s three of PMI’s Smokefree nicotine products. The fourth one is a heat not burn product that uses the same concept as RJ Reynolds’s Revo. It’s a disposable item that contains a stick of processed tobacco and a charcoal pellet that provides the heat. All you have to do is light the pellet and puff away.

Revo isn’t really a new product; it’s basically a rebranded version of the 1990s Eclipse, which was a complete flop. Reynolds relaunched it under the new name because they decided the market had moved enough to make it viable this time around, but it’s still basically the same thing. I’m not very familiar with it but I do have some doubts about how effective it is.

So far, at least, those doubts don’t apply to the PMI product, which the company are currently calling Platform 2. It works on the same principle as the Revo, but it’s a completely new design. That gives PMI a chance to iron out any bugs, and hopefully come up with something that delivers a consistent vape with no risk of accidentally burning the tobacco.

Keeping it simple

The benefits of this sort of design are obvious. If you can manage to smoke, you can use a HnB product like Revo or Platform 2. It works exactly like a cigarette; you just have to take it out the pack, put it in your mouth and light it. There’s nothing fiddly to play with, it doesn’t need electricity and it’s no more vulnerable to the weather than a cigarette. In fact it’s probably less likely to get damaged by water; Revo has a metal foil tube to hold the tobacco, which is a lot more waterproof than cigarette paper.

A lot of smokers have switched to vaping – probably over ten million by now – but it’s not going to work for everyone. Improved technology will eventually increase battery life and make the hardware easier to use and more robust, but it’s not likely e-cigs will ever be as simple as a traditional cigarette. Heat not burn has the potential to solve that problem, because the basic principle – get some tobacco and heat it – is a lot more flexible. Inside a few years there will be HnB products that anyone can use, no matter how tough their job is.

 

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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.

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An introduction to Heat not Burn

For centuries people smoked tobacco, then a few years ago e-cigarettes appeared, and now the next big thing is Heat not Burn, or HnB. This idea has actually been around for a while, but technology was never advanced enough for it to be a real success. Now electronics and batteries have caught up with the concept and a whole range of new devices are starting to appear.

So you’re probably wondering what, exactly, is heat not burn all about? The answer is it’s the latest alternative to smoking – so it’s a technology that could save a lot of lives.

Continue reading An introduction to Heat not Burn