Could tobacco companies quit making traditional cigarettes?

Amid declines in smoking and tightening regulations, companies may consider dropping traditional cigarettes entirely in favor of newer technologies, like e-cigarettes. Still, health experts remain skeptical of the alleged benefits behind the newer products.

Gene J. Puskar/AP
Camel and Newport cigarettes, both Reynolds American brands, are on display at a Smoker Friendly shop in Pittsburgh, July 17.

The world’s largest tobacco company may one day cease the production and sale of cigarettes in favor of safer, alternative products, a top executive announced Wednesday.

Philip Morris International, which makes and distributes Marlboro cigarettes everywhere in the world aside from the United States, is eyeing alternative “reduced risk” alternatives to smoking, already pouring more than $3 billion and a decade of research into developing less-harmful products. While there’s no timeline or guarantee for taking traditional, or combustible, cigarettes off of shelves, Wednesday’s announcement may mark a shift in how these companies see their products' future in the 21st century.

"I believe there will come a moment in time where I would say we have sufficient adoption of these alternative products ... to start envisaging, together with governments, a phase-out period for cigarettes," the company’s chief executive, Andre Calantzopoulos, said in an interview on BBC Radio 4.

"I hope this time will come soon," he added.

As research has revealed the dangers of smoking and health advocates have adamantly called for increased restrictions and education measures surrounding the products, cigarette manufacturers have continuously tried to stay afloat and bring new buyers into a market with a tainted public image. But the fact that those companies have begun to shift their stance on the products may reflect a new generation's changing views of cigarettes, and the need to appeal to them, whether or not companies themselves are necessarily ready to set an example for healthier living.

And experts remain skeptical of such ideas, saying it’s unlikely Mr. Calantzopoulos’s idea to “phase-out” cigarettes will come anytime soon in the massive industry, in which Philip Morris alone brought in $26.8 billion in group revenue in 2015, the Guardian reports. 

“The future is very bright for traditional cigarettes. I think there is no expectation that traditional cigarettes are going away anytime in our lifetime, or anytime in the foreseeable future,” Heather Wipfli, the associate director for the University of Southern California Institute for Global Health, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

“This is a way for them to appear like they are making an effort to create new products that reduce the risk of using tobacco,” she adds. “That’s a credible claim. But the claim that they are in the business of ending traditional cigarettes is premature at best, and insincere at the worst.”

While cigarette smoking may be on the decline, the habit still supports a booming industry with plenty of buyers. In 2015, more than 1.1 billion people smoked tobacco worldwide, and around 6 million die each year from complications, according to the World Health Organization.

The products also face a sharp economic divide, in which high-income countries have tended to stray from the use of cigarettes in recent decades, while low-income countries create markets in which the products can thrive. More than 80 percent of smokers live in middle- and low-income countries, where pricier products like e-cigarettes aren’t likely to get off the ground in the near future and traditional cigarettes still find favor with consumers.

While manufacturers like Philip Morris can likely stay afloat in the worldwide industry, it does seem that they’re starting to look toward a future that centers around a different attitude, at least in nations with programs to educate users about the products’ health risks, and where strict regulations on sales and advertising have been introduced. The company already produces an IQOS smokeless cigarette, which heats tobacco just enough to produce a vapor, but doesn’t burn it. They’re sold in more than a dozen international markets in Europe and Asia, and Philip Morris has said they contain less than 10 percent of the harmful chemicals found in traditional cigarettes.

While many producers have vouched for products like mini cigarettes and electronic cigarettes as safer alternatives to traditional smoking, health officials say it’s too soon to give these products the seal of approval. There’s also evidence that teens who engage in practices like “vaping,” or smoking e-cigarettes, are more likely to become traditional smokers.

"If smokers switch to electronic cigarettes or other products that can be shown to cut the risks to their health, this could lead to a big improvement in public health," Deborah Arnott, the chief executive of the British health charity Action on Smoking and Health, told Reuters. "But we need independent evidence to support any claims made by the tobacco industry."

By advertising their newer products as “safer” than traditional cigarettes, manufacturers could find a way to bring back the very marketing schemes built around traditional cigarettes into the mainstream and to a new, younger audience, buying slick magazine ads, sponsoring big-name events, and cultivating a revamped culture of cool around the products.

“It’s an entire renormalization of that imagery, of that advertising and marketing that we had worked for decades to take out of the public space,” Dr. Wipfli says.

She also stressed the fact that little is known about the long-term effects of using these newer products, and that ranking them as safer than deadly products sets a low bar for health standards that can mislead new smokers. To combat the possible adverse health effects of such products, public education about tobacco's risks, and health warnings on product packaging, are still crucial. 

“There’s no other consumer product as deadly as a combustible cigarette. By saying it’s safer the combustible cigarettes, is not really an appropriate comparison, especially as a nonsmoker,” she adds. “It is not as safe as breathing air.”

This report contains information from Reuters.

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