Ten questions skeptics often ask PMI

20 Mar 2019 · 5 min read

PMI’s Vice President Strategic & Scientific Communications, Dr. Moira Gilchrist, responds to questions posed by Professor Simon Chapman.


Philip Morris International (PMI) is in the midst of a huge company-wide transformation. We have committed energy, money, and resources to building our future on smoke-free products. Science, innovation, and technology have allowed for the development of a new category of tobacco and nicotine products that do not involve combustion, and therefore, smoke. 

In an ideal world, all smokers would quit tobacco and nicotine altogether. But we do not live in an ideal world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there will still be 1.1 billion people who choose to smoke in 2025.1 Our ambition is to convince all adult smokers who will otherwise continue smoking cigarettes to switch to scientifically substantiated smoke-free products as soon as possible. Our vision is that these products one day replace cigarettes. 

Since announcing our transformation in 2017, our new mission has been the subject of criticism by some who have expressed skepticism about our commitment and progress. We understand the continuing distrust of cigarette companies, and we know the tobacco industry faces a trust deficit. But we are not asking for trust. We are asking everyone to be part of the discussion on what society should do next. 

Here, our VP Strategic & Scientific Communications Dr. Moira Gilchrist responds to 10 skeptical questions about PMI’s transformation posed by Emeritus Professor Simon Chapman, an Australian tobacco control activist. Although Moira has offered to meet Professor Chapman to discuss his questions, he has so far declined to talk to her.

You say you want smokers to switch to IQOS or quit, yet Philip Morris USA refers to cigarettes as their “core product” on their website. Are cigarettes also PMI’s “core product” if cigarettes contribute to the biggest percentage of your income?

Philip Morris USA is a separate company from Philip Morris International. Philip Morris USA is owned by Altria and is neither an affiliate of PMI nor part of the same corporate organization. As of September 30, 2020, 23 percent of PMI’s total net revenue comes from our smoke-free products, driven primarily by IQOS.2 This area of our business, in line with our goals, continues to grow. We aim to achieve at least 38 percent of our net revenues from this product line by 2025. We are transforming our business away from cigarettes to smoke-free alternatives as quickly as possible. But PMI does not control the speed at which this happens on our own: governments, regulators, scientists, and tobacco control activists all play a role. We encourage everyone to engage in a debate on how to bring solutions to men and women who don’t quit smoking in as short a time frame as possible. 

The largest chunk of PMI’s income is from its traditional tobacco products. Are sales and marketing employees in this section of the company still trying to increase sales?

We are a company in transition and are fully committed to our smoke-free vision. Our efforts are to get people who would otherwise continue smoking to switch to less harmful alternatives. Today, the majority of our business is still represented by cigarettes, but our goal is to replace those with reduced-risk products as fast as possible. As of December 31, 2020, we have launched smoke-free products in 64 markets worldwide.3 In some countries, like Australia, we are unable to launch them due to regulations banning or severely restricting their sales. In those countries, men and women who don’t quit cigarettes are being denied the opportunity to switch to better alternatives.

In 2018, PMI supported Philippine Tobacco Institute’s successful legal battle against the city of Philippine city of Balanga’s plans to impose a smoking ban on its university campus and surrounding areas. Doesn’t this move away from your message of wanting a smoke-free future? You want people to quit smoking, but only if they switch to IQOS, is that it? And if not you will continue to fight effective tobacco control as usual?

In order to establish a smoke-free world, governments, regulators, and private organizations need to work together to establish the most effective way to ensure adult smokers—who would otherwise continue to smoke—switch from cigarettes to better alternatives.

The Philippine Tobacco Institute’s challenges to two Balanga City local tobacco control ordinances were based on a number of factors, including the extreme nature of the ordinances, which would deny adult smokers the opportunity to switch to smoke-free products. We encourage regulators to differentiate between cigarettes and smoke-free alternatives, such as heated tobacco products and e-cigarettes. Risk-proportionate, differentiated regulations can help shift smokers who don’t quit to less harmful alternatives. 



Video: What is a smoke-free future, and why does PMI pursue it?

In the past, your company has opposed tobacco control policies, such as plain packaging, raising taxes on tobacco and graphic health warnings. What do you say to critics who bring up these actions as conflicting with your new smoke-free direction?

The risks of smoking are well-known and there’s absolutely no doubt that tobacco products should be subject—as they are—to strict rules and enforcement. In the past, we have opposed regulatory measures that we felt to be extreme and not backed by evidence of effectiveness. We agree that regulations should continue to dissuade people from starting to smoke or use nicotine-containing products, and also encourage people to quit. At the same time, it is equally clear that millions will continue to smoke—those people should have the opportunity to switch to better alternatives if they do not quit. The combination of sensible, risk-based regulation of smoke-free products, along with further restrictions on cigarettes, can be a more effective and faster method of reducing the harm caused by smoking than focusing only on typical regulatory measures.

Some critics claim PMI’s business model is focused on smoking AND vaping, not smoking OR vaping—how do you respond to this?

Clearly, a smoker’s best choice is to quit tobacco and nicotine altogether. But for those adults who would otherwise continue to smoke, switching completely to a scientifically substantiated smoke-free alternative is a better choice than continuing to smoke. We do not encourage dual use. We encourage adult smokers to switch completely to our smoke-free products—abandoning cigarettes permanently—in order to obtain the full benefits compared to smoking.4 As of December 31, 2020, we estimate that 12.7 million men and women have switched completely to our heated tobacco product and stopped smoking.5 That means of the total 17.6 million users as of December 31, 2020, 72 percent have stopped using cigarettes—and we would like to see that proportion grow.

Moira Gilchrist cutout
In order to establish a smoke-free world, governments, regulators and private organizations need to work together.
Dr. Moira Gilchrist, Vice President Strategic and Scientific Communications, Philip Morris International

Would you also hope that children would not take up vaping? If you believe e-cigarettes are of “minimal risk,” why not openly encourage young people to vape?

Our message on this is very clear: we don’t want anyone—especially minors—to take up smoking cigarettes or using smoke-free products, and we do not encourage anyone to do so. Our smoke-free products are not risk-free, and they are addictive. They are only for adults who would otherwise continue to smoke or use nicotine products.

As fewer young people are taking up smoking compared to previous generations, doesn’t that mean looking far into the future that there will be less smokers available as potential IQOS customers?

Through the work of the World Health Organization and individual countries, smoking prevalence declined 4.1 percent between 2005 and 2015.6 We recognize the significant role they are playing in driving policy to reduce smoking around the world. Yet despite these efforts, millions of people who understand the risks continue to smoke cigarettes. According to WHO estimates, over one billion people will be smoking well into the next decade, about the same number as today.7 Data that the WHO collects show that annually on average only 2.5 percent of smokers quit, which means that the vast majority of smokers will continue to smoke. 

It is these hundreds of millions of men and women who stand to gain the most from less harmful alternatives to smoking. If those adults who would otherwise continue to smoke instead abandon cigarettes and switch to less harmful alternatives, the decline in smoking prevalence can significantly exceed the predicted rates of cessation.

Many stakeholders have voiced their concern about the impact of youth initiation of e-cigarette products. We share this concern. The positive impact that smoke-free products can have for adult smokers who don't quit should not be thwarted by an increase in youth use of nicotine-containing products. Our marketing code is strong and enforced globally. Our post-market research shows that initiation of IQOS use by non-smokers is very low.9 We remain continually vigilant and welcome constructive feedback.

Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA, USD 12.8 billion in a vaping product that has been widely linked to a growing percentage of U.S. teenagers using e-cigarettes. Are you going to tell me that this teen use of e-cigs “concerns” you or that PMI was encouraged by those statistics?

Philip Morris USA is a separate company from Philip Morris International. Philip Morris USA is owned by Altria and is neither an affiliate of PMI nor part of the same corporate organization. We don’t want anyone—especially minors—to start smoking cigarettes or using smoke-free products, and we do not encourage anyone to do so. Our smoke-free products are only for adults who would otherwise continue to smoke or use nicotine products.

Although smoke-free products appear to be less harmful than smoking cigarettes, they still contain nicotine, which is very addictive. Are you concerned that nicotine delivered through vaping could be very addictive?

Smoke-free products do not address concerns about addiction. The best option is never to start using tobacco or nicotine products. Those who have already started should quit. But if they would otherwise continue to smoke, they should switch to a scientifically substantiated smoke-free alternative. These products contain nicotine, which is addictive and not risk-free, but it is not the primary cause of smoking-related diseases. It is the combustion of tobacco that produces the vast majority of the harmful chemicals that are linked to smoking-related diseases. Smoke-free tobacco products, such as heated tobacco products and e-cigarettes, aim to reduce the harmful effects caused by smoking by eliminating the combustion of tobacco. 

In order for smoke-free products to be acceptable and effective less harmful substitutes for cigarettes, it is important that a level of nicotine is present. Our clinical studies in adult smokers showed that those who switched to our heated tobacco product, IQOS, achieved comparable levels of nicotine uptake as those who continued to smoke their usual cigarettes. Importantly, nicotine exposure did not increase above levels observed at baseline, nor did it exceed the exposure levels in those who continued to smoke their usual cigarettes.10

Many companies expect their employees to use their products. Why do you think PMI is comfortable with having employees who choose not to smoke or vape?

Our position is clear. The best choice is never to start using nicotine and tobacco products. We operate a diverse, EQUAL-SALARY certified organization and embrace all kinds of talented people, whether they are smokers or not. We do not recruit people based on their smoking or vaping habits, and we do not encourage employees to smoke or use smoke-free products. In line with our company’s transformation and smoke-free vision we are encouraging people from all over the world who do smoke—including our employees—to quit smoking or, if they choose not to, to switch to less harmful alternatives compared to smoking.


This page was updated on February 17, 2021.

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