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‘Positive disruption’ could end smoking, and shape future of public health

Vaping in Belgium - Belga
17:15 09/11/2022

New research indicates that ‘positive disruption’ could accelerate the end of smoking, according to an international survey on innovation in the public health sector.

‘Disruption’ in this sense refers to major developments, technological or otherwise, that have changed society in a lasting manner. An example of positive disruption would be the advent of refrigeration, and an example of a recent negative disruption is the coronavirus pandemic. 

One multinational planning on being at the forefront of positive disruption in regards to mitigating the harmful effects of smoking, is tobacco company Philip Morris International (PMI). 

“To bring about much-needed change and accelerate the end of smoking, PMI is transforming for good, having fundamentally revamped not just its product portfolio but also its purpose, business model, value chain and practices,” the company said in its latest white paper

“The big question isn't whether change will happen. It will. Change is constant and inevitable.”

Public support for ‘disruptive’ innovations

A survey commission by the multinational found strong societal support for disruptive innovations that would drive public health progress, with 89% of adults across 14 countries believing that new technologies and innovations can play an important role in improving public health.

But 38% of respondents said they felt such innovations were not accessible to all citizens in their countries, a sentiment that holds true for all disruptive innovations.

“Despite broad public support for disruptive innovation to address global challenges, issues such as lack of equal access are likely to stall progress,” the survey explained.

But people are hopeful that positive disruption could reduce the harm of tobacco, with 64% of the PMI survey’s respondents saying that new technologies and innovations can play an important role in helping replace cigarettes with less harmful alternatives for adults who would otherwise continue to smoke.

“Industry disruption only looks easy in hindsight,” said Emmanuel Babeau, CFO for Philip Morris International, in the PMI Integrated Report for 2021.

“At present, we are in mid-stride: with one foot in our past, operating in a fiercely competitive legacy cigarette business, and one foot in our bold future, building an entirely novel and improved category of products.”

Resistance to smoke-free products in Belgium

PMI hasn’t launched any of its non-combustible products in Belgium. When asked why, Miguel Matos, managing director for Belgium, said that “the current Belgian tobacco legislation makes it impossible to inform adult smokers about better alternatives to the cigarette”. Disruption in PMI’s view means that smokers who don’t quit should be challenged in “a scientifically substantiated way” to adopt a non-combustible product.

Public health leaders, media and politicians share the view that on the whole, the tobacco industry has a history of falsifying science, along with other ethically wrong moves. It’s one reason why the topic remains something of a taboo in Belgium.

The country’s regulators, unlike many of their EU counterparts, continue to be resistant to new tobacco and nicotine products. Matos told The Bulletin that “Belgium is the only country in Europe that obliges manufacturers – in direct opposition to European directives – to put the same health warning on heated tobacco products as on cigarettes.”

The latest Superior Health Council’s report on e-cigarettes recommends that the latter should be treated differently from cigarettes, recognising their reduced harm status in relation to smoking.

PMI believes that heated tobacco, or other non-combustibles, should be similarly treated. Said Matos: “We ask regulators to treat heated tobacco products the same way as e-cigarettes, reflecting the scientific position of many public health institutions that both these alternatives have the potential to reduce the risk of smoking-related diseases.”

Call for switch to alternative tobacco products

An estimated 1.1 billion people worldwide smoke cigarettes, and PMI said there’s no doubt that they’d be better off quitting tobacco and nicotine completely. But they also acknowledged that doing so isn’t simple, and that a more practical and immediately-effective public health solution would be empowering these adults to switch to a better alternative.

Those alternatives would be innovative products that “while not risk-free, are a far better choice for adult smokers than continued cigarette use,” according to the company’s report.

PMI has already invested over $9 billion in such innovations, while aiming to clarify their intended adult use due to the problem of minors being drawn to non-cigarette vaping products. 

As of June 2022, an estimated 13.2 million adult smokers (with data excluding Russia and Ukraine) have switched to PMI’s smoke-free products and stopped smoking.

“We recognise the magnitude of the challenge and remain committed to continuing to lead, tracking progress and reporting on it transparently to ensure cigarettes become obsolete as soon as possible,” said Babeau.

Photo: Electronic smoking product (c) Belga/Nicolas Maeterlinck 

Written by The Bulletin