Science deserves a seat at the table

21 Sep 2021 · 4 min read
Speaking at the 2021 Concordia Annual Summit, PMI Chief Executive Jacek Olczak pleaded for public health policies to be based on transparent peer-reviewed science, rather than the ideological opinions of special interest groups that shut out critics and silence debate.
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Written by

Jacek Olczak, Chief Executive Officer, Philip Morris International

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Good afternoon. I am delighted to join all of you at the Concordia Annual Summit—and, at long last, to be on a real stage rather than in front of a screen. 

We have come together today to talk about resilience and recovery. To share our insights and ideas for how to build a world that is better for all.

Two things are certain: We cannot build the future we desire by relying on the same blueprints we used to construct our recent past. And returning to a version of yesterday’s “normal” is unthinkable. It would be a dereliction of duty and an unforgivable waste of the opportunity before us to evolve and grow as a society.

PMI's Jacek Olczak addresses the 2021 Concordia Summit on the need for inclusion to promote progress

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With COVID-19, we have been handed a terrible burden … and a gift. An opportunity to create our world anew, drawing on the lessons we have learned during 18 months of lockdowns and fear and uncertainty.

A lesson that has been especially resonant for me is just how irrational it is to attempt to address a massive global challenge—such as the current pandemic—from behind closed doors and without input from all concerned parties. Moreover, our recent experiences have shown me how counterproductive it is to prioritize certain people and perspectives over all others to the point of obscuring truths and blocking innovative and more immediate solutions.

We have an opportunity to build a better world, but we cannot do that until we open the doors to new partnerships and new frameworks. To initiate change, we need to open our minds and be willing to welcome all pertinent parties and perspectives to the table. To recover, rebuild, and repair our world, we must act in unison as a global community rather than be led by provincial thinking.

As the CEO of Philip Morris International, I have witnessed how the “old normal” ways of working are heaving roadblocks along the path to progress. 

The situation we face as a company is relatively simple: Globally, more than one billion people continue to smoke cigarettes. We can all agree that this is a bad thing—for those individuals and for the public health. Regulatory measures to reduce that number have had limited effect, but not nearly enough to solve the problem. The answers for the future lie squarely in a fierce commitment to science and technological innovation. 

Over the past decade, we have had an enormous scientific and technological breakthrough: Companies such as mine have developed smoke-free products that eliminate combustion—products such as e-cigarettes and heated tobacco systems. While not risk-free, these products have been scientifically substantiated to be a much better alternative to continued smoking. In fact, in authorizing our heated tobacco system as a Modified Risk Tobacco Product—and allowing reduced exposure claims to be made to consumers—the U.S. Food and Drug Administration noted that it is “appropriate to promote the public health” and “is expected to benefit the health of the population as a whole.”

That’s great news, isn’t it? Adults who continue to smoke now have better alternatives to cigarettes. Who could oppose them switching to these better options?

You would be surprised.

Rather than celebrate what by any objective measure is a positive public health breakthrough, some special interest groups are prioritizing ideology, politics, and a desire for retribution over progress. Fixated on the fantasy of an entirely tobacco-free world, they have lost sight of the opportunity that exists today, refusing to accept the science behind these alternatives and rejecting harm reduction as a solution for better.

We need only look at Japan to see a market in which the introduction of heated tobacco products directly correlates to an accelerated decline in cigarette use. 

Equally troubling, authorities worldwide are being influenced by lavishly funded special interest groups and NGOs afraid to lose the funding they gain from continuing to fight a last-century battle. Constructs put in place through the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control are willfully being misinterpreted. For example, Article 5.3 of the Convention, intended to limit industry influence—something we respect and support—is wielded to censor and ostracize critics, silence reasoned voices, and stymie debate. 

The closed doors, secrecy, and intrigue that marked criticism of the tobacco industry 30 years ago are now, ironically, standard practice for many anti-tobacco organizations and NGOs. Unfortunately, their tactics are making it harder for my company to achieve our goal of no longer making or selling cigarettes. As we expand our business for the long-term outside of tobacco and nicotine, and invest in pharma, we are faced with the same illogical exclusion. 

The misplaced fear and resistance to change must be addressed. 

We need to remove politics and ideological principles that are impeding progress—and not only with regard to tobacco harm reduction. The harms of exclusionary policies and counterproductive measures apply with similar force to climate change, pandemic mitigation, institutionalized inequity, and other pressing challenges.

Intentionally or not, the “old guard” has created a world that is failing the majority. They have championed policies that prioritize the status quo rather than embracing intelligent change. 

It is time for new voices. It is time for more inclusive and pragmatic approaches.

Science—when vetted through peer review—is science. Facts are facts. The notion that a scientific finding must be flawed because it comes from a particular company or industry is absurd—especially when it has been confirmed by respected governments, scientists and other third parties. We need to remove the stigma that scientific innovation funded by a tobacco company cannot possibly be reliable or in the public interest. Equally essential, we need to stop excluding men and women who smoke from the conversation. These are the people who have the most to gain from reduced-risk alternatives. They must be allowed a voice.

We can continue to allow these groups to prescribe who gets to be engaged in solving problems—even when they have precious little to show for their decades of work. Or we can instead work together—as smartly and as quickly as possible—to tackle the very real issues that threaten us all.

It is human nature to stick with “what we know.” Thanks to the “great pause” of COVID-19, we have had time to reflect on where that tendency has gotten us. What we need now is not more of the same but fresh thinking. We need to break out of our echo chambers and monolithic committees and conferences so that innovative thinking and science can get through. Healthy debate requires differences and dissent. I would urge those of you gathered here today to ask how we can create a better tomorrow. Will it be by doubling down on dogma and division, or will it be by embracing collaboration, diversity, and inclusivity? The challenges before us are mighty. The consequences of our failing to meet them are great.

I am not here to ratchet up tensions. Quite the opposite. I am here to ask you to help put a stop to outdated, exclusionary approaches that are preventing us from moving forward as a society. And I am asking you to put the public health over ideology and ancient grudges. If we have learned one thing this past year and a half, it is that science, innovation, and inclusion must be permitted to prevail.

I stand before you four months into my role as CEO of PMI, a company undergoing a profound transformation. We are passionate in our commitment to unsmoke the world and create a better future—a future free of cigarettes. Now, we need you—and all those in positions of influence—to join us in unsmoking minds so we can rebuild a better future for all, faster.

Thank you.