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Will heat not Burn make Britain smoke free?

Smoke Free

Ever since the first Heat not Burn devices appeared, they’ve been controversial. Most of that controversy has come from politicians and the public health industry, who seem to have hated the technology right from the beginning. If you’re a vaper their complaints will be pretty familiar; HnB users haven’t really quit, they’re still addicted to nicotine, it’s just a different kind of cigarette, it’s all a Big Tobacco plot to get children hooked… you know the sort of thing. It’s all hyped up, it’s all alarmist – and it’s all untrue.

What is true? It’s true that Heat not Burn has the potential to make smoking go away. Public health say they want this to happen, but over the past few years they’ve been very hostile to any new alternatives to smoking. The cynical might think they’re more worried about protecting their jobs than helping smokers find safer alternatives.

This might explain why all the targets set by the traditional anti-smoking lobby are slightly unambitious. Currently the British government’s tobacco control plan – largely written by taxpayer-funded activists like ASH – aims to create a “smoke free generation” by reducing the smoking rate to 5% (it’s currently around 16%). Obviously a 5% smoking rate isn’t “smoke free” in any way that resembles reality, because 5% of the UK population is actually quite a lot of people, but that’s their target. According to the trend in smoking rates over the last few years, that target should be achieved around 2040.

Now that figure is being challenged from an unexpected source. A couple of weeks ago Philip Morris released a report produced for them by Frontier Economics, an analysis consultant. Frontier have looked at the data on smoking rates in the UK, examined the current trends and what’s driving them, and come to an interesting conclusion.

The government might think that they can achieve their 5% target by 2040, but Frontier and PMI are saying that, in fact, they could get there much sooner – by 2029, just twelve years from now. It might seem surprising to hear a tobacco company advocating a faster decline in smoking, but in fact PMI have been saying this for a while now. When I visited their research centre at the Cube back in April they were very open about the fact that they plan to move away from cigarettes as fast as possible, and that the future is in alternative products.

What about vaping?

The problem is that, right now, the most common alternative product in the UK is e-cigarettes – and it looks like they might be running out of steam. The number of vapers in Britain is still rising, and an ever-increasing percentage of them have switched away from cigarettes completely (just under half of UK vapers also smoke, down from 70% two years ago), but growth is slowing down. In 2014, 800,000 British smokers started vaping, but it’s likely that by the end of 2017 the year’s total will be just 100,000. The most likely reason for this fall is that smokers have been scared off by false claims about health risks.

Now PMI say that it’s possible to reach the “Smokefree” target eleven years early – but only if the number of smokers switching to safer alternatives starts to accelerate again, back to where it was in 2014. The question is, what alternative should they switch to?

E-cigarettes are still a popular option – according to Public Health England they’re now the UK’s top choice among smokers who want to quit. It’s possible that, if people like ASH stop talking nonsense about them, the number of smokers switching to them every year could rise again. On the other hand, it’s also possible they could be overtaken by Heat not Burn. In fact I think that’s very likely.

When it comes to quitting smoking, e-cigs have been a game changer. The number of smokers in Britain is falling faster than it ever has before, even though fewer people are buying nicotine gum or using NHS quit services. They’re not ideal for everyone, though. Some smokers find them too complicated; others just want something that tastes like their favourite cigarette.

Is Heat not Burn the future?

I think a lot of smokers who aren’t interested in e-cigs are going to be very interested in HnB, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, a device like iQOS isn’t as simple as a cigarette – what is? – but it’s a lot less complicated than a high-end e-cig. Secondly, HnB can recreate the taste of cigarette smoke almost perfectly and that’s important to a lot of people. Many vapers love the array of new flavours they can use, but there are also plenty smokers who just want something that tastes like the smoke they’re used to. E-cigs are never going to recreate that flavour – they just don’t work that way – but PMI have spent a lot of money making sure iQOS tastes as much like a Marlboro as possible, and it’s paid off.

If you want to see how well it’s paid off, just look at Japan. iQOS launched there three years ago, and as of last month it’s taken 13.3% of the country’s nicotine market. It’s already broken even, paying for the enormous cost of developing it, and it isn’t even on sale in most countries yet. E-cigs have been growing fast, but not that fast.

It doesn’t stop with iQOS, either. As well as its direct competitors, like Glo and the new Lil from KT&G, there are more products due on the market soon. A couple of paragraphs back I asked what’s as simple as a cigarette. Well, PMI’s next product is. Using the same concept as RJ Reynold’s Revo, but apparently working much better, these are exactly as easy to use a cigarette. Just take it out the pack, light the end – which contains a charcoal heating pellet – then, when you’re finished it, stub it out in an ashtray. If it works as well as PMI are hoping, this could be even bigger than iQOS.

There’s a lot going on in the world of HnB right now, with new products appearing and existing ones being rolled out into new markets. There’s also a lot of opposition from the usual suspects in tobacco control, and that has the potential to put smokers off trying HnB for themselves. If we’re lucky, however, smoking could more or less disappear from the UK before 2030, and it won’t be plain packs or nagging health campaigns that do it; it will be e-cigs and heated tobacco products.

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