A Tale of Smokeless Fire, Featuring Corporations, Lawmakers, and the Media
This is a translated and slightly adapted version of an article originally published in Romanian on August 8.
Last month the Moldovan government cancelled the privileges enjoyed by IQOS and other heat-not-burn products, but not before Moldovans could taste a puff of sneak PR and lobbying from Big Tobacco. Although the law passed with broad consensus in Parliament, it’s a good idea to pause a bit and look back at how the whole public debate unfolded.
IQOS entered the Moldovan market through the backdoor, when the previous Parliament rushed to pass a series of amendments at the last meeting before the 2017 summer recess. The amendments were proposed by the former MP Corneliu Dudnic and voted by his fellow Democrats with almost no deliberation. According to the health news service e-sanatate.md, Dudnic’s proposal actually came from the oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc. By the way, this website was among the few media outlets that covered the amendments which allowed for the sale and advertising of IQOS products, including their online sale to underage buyers. Article 25 of the Law on Tobacco Control, which bans sales to minors, explicitly made an exception under par. c) “on the Internet” for heat-not-burn tobacco products.
However, no one was scandalized. Until the end of 2017, random pieces reproduced from the Romanian media would appear occasionally on mainstream online outlets like agora.md or unimedia.info, where heat-not-burn cigarettes would rather be treated as a technological whatnot.
But even these apparently neutral articles perpetuate a misconception – that IQOS is a recent invention.
In fact, it succeeds another Philip Morris product, called Accord, which was sold and promoted between 1998 and 2006. Although Philip Morris International (PMI) claims that IQOS is healthier, according to an independent study, the aerosol emitted by the new product doesn’t have significant improvements on Accord.
“Manufacturers exploit the lack of clear consensus on the specific forms of harm caused by HTPs to confuse consumers and evade existing regulation...” (WHO)
By the summer of 2018, the campaign to promote IQOS goes full gas. It comes with cars sporting IQOS logos, with dedicated outlets and kiosks, IQOS-friendly spaces, sponsored events, and influencers hired to advertise the product. The PMI campaign is so ample and intense because its ultimate goal is to build an entire social infrastructure for heat-not-burn consumption.
Towards the end of the year, the Moldovan internet abounds in articles telling you how cool and safe IQOS and HEETS are: Newsmaker, Protv, allmoldova, timpul.md, point.md, stiri.md, vipmagazin.md, locals.md, agora.md, infotag.md, noi.md, unimedia.info, kp.md, realitatea.md, etc. Whereas some pieces were properly labeled as paid promotion, others were disguised as objective news or personal impressions.
The Ministry of Health makes a half-baked attempt at doing its job and issues a warning saying that “at present there is no evidence to demonstrate that EHTR iQOS products are less harmful than conventional cigarettes or that their consumption carries less risks for consumers’ health”.
The warning however is not followed up by any legislative action to reverse the
Plahotniuc Dudnic amendments. Without them, IQOS would have been be subject to the same regulatory treatment as conventional cigarettes and the whole marketing and PR campaign would have been illegal.
A multinational like Philip Morris works with an armada of PR agencies and has a complex marketing and publicity strategy, but we can clearly distinguish one particular target of the IQOS promotion effort: young people. IQOS is presented as a more innovative, safer, and cooler alternative for the youth.
This is obvious both in the messages used (“Crazy selfie, karaoke, IQOS zone. See how visitors enjoyed themselves at Underland 2019 – Wine Carnival”, “Be ready for a summer in our own colors! Get your IQOS on this special offer!”) and in the employed media and channels. Philip Morris placed dozens of advertorials on diez.md, perhaps Moldova’s most popular website among the youth, sponsored a series of video interviews on agora.md (called “People Who Change Everything” and recorded in IQOS-friendly places), and created “lifestyle” articles in posh magazines.
Moldova is of course not a singular example. In May 2019, Reuters exposed how Philip Morris was using young influencers to promote the product on social media, leading the company to promise to suspend its online campaign. The ads and tactics used by Philip Morris violate the company’s own guidance not to promote smoking among young people. This was also a promise made to the United States’ Food and Drug Administration when the company got the permission to sell IQOS.
A survey among young people in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada shows that greater proportions of youth are interested in trying IQOS than trying the usual smokes. This means that the PMI communication strategy not only encourages quitting smoking cigarettes in favor of heated tobacco, but is also effective in convincing youth who maybe wouldn’t have smoked at all to give IQOS a try.
The World Health Organization also observes that the marketing techniques employed to promote heated tobacco products are “particularly effective in targeting young people.”
Diverting the Heated Debate
The announcement from PAS lawmakers that they were going to cancel the HTP privileges coincided with a reinvigorated IQOS push. MP Radu Marian published on Medium a well-referenced piece detailing his reasons behind the bill, where he points out the following:
Moldova has committed itself, through both national legislation and international treaties, to discouraging smoking.
According to both FDA and WHO, no proof exists that heat-not-burn cigarettes are safer for one’s health than the conventional ones.
Consumers are being misled by IQOS ads.
The government loses revenue because of reduced excise tax rates.
A good start for a public debate. It would be great if all the legislative proposals were made so plain for the general public. However PMI and its agents chose to ignore most arguments and focus instead on issues such as the excise tax and legal procedure.
Notably, PMI had to defend its product without the help of Parliament Democrats, those who introduced the IQOS privileges two years ago. Abandoned by their skipper (Vlad Plahotniuc has been hiding abroad), PDM joined the other MPs to annul the privileges.
Left without allies in the legislature, the PMI Moldova’s general manager appeared in an interview with Agora to declare that a hike in the excise tax would inevitably make the product more expensive and lead consumers to switch back to regular cigarettes. The idea is continued and elaborated in a study published by the Moldovan Economic Freedom Institute “Milton Friedman”, which affirms that in other countries heat-not-burn cigarettes are subject to a differentiated tax treatment, that the law-making procedure was not fully respected, and that the bill skipped the opinion of the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Economy. We are also told that, while the Finance guys want higher taxes, the Economy guys should think about stimulating businesses. Oleg Efrim, the former justice minister and currently lawyer for PMI, joins in by publishing a legal opinion that echoes the same arguments, about how entrepreneurial rights are being undermined and how various legal procedures are being disrespected.
Two influential lobbying organizations, the European Business Association and the American Chamber of Commerce, publish a letter also criticizing the “legislative process.” AmCham notably drew New York Times’ attention for working to oppose anti-smoking measures around the globe.
To conclude, PMI pushed the debate as far as it could from issues like public health, smoking among the youth or practices designed to mislead consumers. A public debate adequately covered in the media would have put a dent in the claim that IQOS is safer than simple cigarettes and would have revealed the misleading tactics used by the company.
A Lost Opportunity
What was really at stake was the company’s ability to promote IQOS. The profit margin for the IQOS device and paraphernalia is higher than for conventional cigarettes, meaning it will cushion the impact of a higher excise tax at least partially. The really bad news for the company is having to bring its marketing and promotion steamroller to a stall. Under the new law, IQOS advertising will soon be banned, the products will have to display the mandatory health warnings, and selling and smoking them will be possible in fewer places.
The World Health Organization itself said the following in a report: “The marketing of HTPs is one of the biggest challenges to tobacco control efforts. Products are widely promoted using messages that explicitly or implicitly claim they are safer and less toxic alternatives to conventional cigarettes. Manufacturers exploit the lack of clear consensus on the specific forms of harm caused by HTPs to confuse consumers and evade existing regulation and avoid the introduction of regulations that cover these products.”.
This article is free for reproduction. Thanks for including credits and links.
Revolution or redux? Assessing IQOS through a precursor product, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov ↩︎
Awareness and interest in IQOS heated tobacco products among youth in Canada, England and the USA, tobaccocontrol.bmj.com ↩︎
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