Philip Morris International has made billions from selling cigarettes. Now it says it wants to be a healthcare company. Can Big Tobacco reinvent itself – and should we trust it? Etan Smallman reports
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It appears to be the first example of a turkey voting for Christmas. The tobacco firm Philip Morris International (PMI), which has made billions from selling addicts cancer-causing products, said earlier in the summer that it would welcome a Government ban on cigarettes.
PMI insisted “strong regulation” was what was required to “help solve the problem of cigarette smoking once and for all”.
It is also perhaps the first example of a turkey trying to turn itself into an organic, vegan wrap. The firm behind the Marlboro brand now not only has a mission to “unsmoke the world”, it also says it is morphing into a “healthcare and wellness company”.
PMI has been attempting a £1.1bn takeover of Vectura, a company that, among other things, develops inhalers to treat lung diseases.
Critics say this transformation is, in large part, smoke and mirrors. As PMI, and the industry at large, trumpets to advanced nations its pivot towards less toxic alternatives – such as vaping devices – the company still generates three-quarters of its revenue from cigarettes and is responsible for selling more than a tenth of cigarettes globally.
More than 80 per cent of the world’s 1.3 billion tobacco users live in low- and middle-income countries.
And smoking still, as the health slogan goes, kills: about eight million people a year, including 1.2 million from second-hand smoke, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The WHO says the “tobacco epidemic” remains “one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced”.
Almost one in 10 UK women still smokes during pregnancy, according to the pressure group ASH (Action on Smoking and Health), though this is its lowest since records began.
In May, England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said that with smoking-related diseases killing about 90,000 people each year, more Britons probably died from tobacco than Covid in 2020.]
“The reason that people like me get very concerned and upset about this cancer,” he said, “is it’s almost entirely caused for profit. The great majority of people who die of this cancer die so that a small number of companies make profits from the people that have become addicted in young ages and then keep addicted to something which they know will kill them.”
Lena Greenberg, a spokesperson for campaigning group Corporate Accountability, is sceptical about PMI’s Damascene conversion.
“The industry’s future is hazy at best,” they tell i, “so industry leaders like PMI are bending over backwards to deceive the public – that despite all evidence to the contrary, the tobacco industry is in fact a champion of public health.
A consumer product that kills
“But we are not so easily misled. If PMI walks like a tobacco corporation, continuing to rake in most of its profits from combustible cigarettes by exporting the epidemic to the Global South, and talks like a tobacco corporation, placing ‘opinion’ pieces on how we must allow companies to reinvent themselves, it must be a tobacco corporation, which by definition sells the only consumer product that kills people when used as directed.”
Simon Clark, director of smokers’ rights group Forest, says: “Philip Morris’s commitment to reduced risk products is to be welcomed.
However, he added that there are millions of adults who enjoy smoking and don’t want to quit and that choice must be respected.
“If Philip Morris want to leave smoking behind, good luck to them, but banning cigarettes won’t stop people smoking. It will simply drive the product into the hands of criminal gangs who will happily sell illicit and counterfeit cigarettes to anyone who wants them, including children.”
PMI’s £1bn bid for asthma inhaler maker Vectura has been strongly opposed by health charities.
An open letter to shareholders, organised by Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, said the takeover created a “moral conflict”, adding: “Tobacco companies should not profit from treating the illnesses their products cause.”
Hazel Cheeseman, deputy chief executive at Actiono on Smoking and Health (ASH), says cigarette companies are subject to a unique global regulatory system because of the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.
She says: “This treaty has a specific part in it which talks about protecting health policy from the commercial vested interests of the tobacco industry.
“The chair of ASH is a respiratory consultant and he and colleagues at the European Respiratory Society have been talking about how they will think about which products they would prescribe as respiratory, were Vectura to be bought and the profits of those products would therefore go to support a tobacco company. I think the implications for Vectura as a business are quite significant.”
However, not all are so wary. The Financial Times business commentator Brooke Masters wrote last month that firms such as PMI should be given the benefit of the doubt for “trying to bust out of the tobacco box”.
“The debate over Vectura is really a test of society’s willingness to let companies reinvent themselves and address the problems they helped create,” she argued.
“The moral absolutism that tobacco opponents are displaying bodes ill for the far more important fight against climate change.”
PMI said in a statement: “Philip Morris International is accelerating its journey to become a majority smoke-free business – in February we increased our ambition to generate at least 50 per cent of net revenues from smoke-free products in 2025.
“In the last quarter, ending 30 June, smoke-free products already accounted for nearly one third of total net revenues globally, up from virtually 0 per cent in 2015.
“Our transformation – which is moving millions of adults away from smoking to better alternatives and will one day see an end to cigarettes in our portfolio – is continuing at pace, and no amount of criticism will stop us from moving as fast as we can.
“In February, PMI also announced its ambitions to generate $1bn (£726m) of net revenues from ‘Beyond Nicotine’ products by 2025.
“Vectura, which will operate as an autonomous business unit, will form the backbone of PMI’s inhaled therapeutics business. PMI intends to increase the total level of expenditure on research and development that it believes will further benefit Vectura’s differentiated technologies and development expertise for the delivery of complex inhaled therapeutics.”
When it comes to e-cigarettes, the UK has relatively strict regulations. It is illegal to buy them if you are aged under 18 and Public Health England has repeatedly said that relatively few teenagers vape.
Experts say e-cigarette use is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases and lung disorders.
However, concerns have been raised abroad that vaping is being promoted as a smoking “gateway” to youngsters and non-smokers.
No smoke without fire
In February, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that British American Tobacco (BAT), the UK’s largest tobacco firm, was targeting young people with promotions for its new heated tobacco product as part of “an aggressive £1bn marketing campaign that leans heavily on social media, concerts and sporting events”.
This included “presenting nicotine products as cool and aspirational” in youth-focused ads and paying social media influencers to promote smoking products.
BAT said: “We only use influencers in some countries where it’s permitted, and social media platform policies allow.”
Tobacco insider-turned-whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand – who was played by Russell Crowe in the 1999 film The Insider – said recently that many US children are “addicted to a chemical” which has “far-reaching effects on the neurochemistry and structure and function of the brain”.
He told Vice: “If countries fail to regulate the product and allow it to be marketed and distributed, they are indirectly guilty of homicide.”
Meanwhile, BAT said in July that it sees cannabis products “as another wave of future growth”.
It has taken a stake in the Canadian medical cannabis maker OrganiGram and signed a deal to research a range of adult cannabis products.
Regardless of the cigarette-makers’ commitments, the Government has a stated ambition for England to be smoke-free by 2030, though in practice this means reaching 5 per cent average adult smoking prevalence (in Scotland, the target is 2034, while in Wales and Northern Ireland there isn’t one).
Cheeseman warns that affluent parts of the country could reach that goal a decade before poorer areas.
“Smoking has a really big social gradient, so leafy Kingston upon Thames [in south London] has far fewer smokers than Kingston upon Hull [in East Yorkshire].”
Follow the money
She says the target is “absolutely doable in the next decade”, but only with extra funding and by ensuring universal access to support for smokers to quit.
“Clearly money is a challenge for governments all over the world right now, but money is obviously not a problem for tobacco companies – they are among the richest sectors in the world.
“They’ve profited from the fact that they have a highly addictive product for decades and decades, and if we’re going to see tobacco smoking end in the next decade, then we need the money out of these companies to realise that ambition.”