The CEO of tobacco giant Philip Morris International has said the company wants to stop selling cigarettes in the UK within a decade, a move that would see the firm's own products, including Marlboro and Benson & Hedges, disappear from shop shelves.
Calling for the demise of your own product is not a conventional business tactic, but this is not a selfless move that will see Philip Morris self-implode into a sad pile of ash — big tobacco is playing the long game.
"I want to allow this company to leave smoking behind,” Philip Morris International's chief executive, Jacek Olczak, recently told the Mail on Sunday. “I think in the UK, ten years from now maximum, you can completely solve the problem of smoking.”
When asked whether that meant Philip Morris would stop selling cigarettes in the UK within the decade, Olczak replied: ”Absolutely.”
Even beyond the UK, Phillip Morris has recently made a bunch of pledges to create a “smoke-free future” without conventional combustible cigarettes. Their aim is to move towards — in their words — “less harmful” alternatives and "reduced-risk products," such as heat-not-burn tobacco products and vaping e-cigarettes.
The categorical evidence that smoking is absolutely terrible for human health has been staring the world in the face for the best part of a century. Increased regulation to curtail the advertising and sale of tobacco has been mounting for decades, but the tobacco industry is now reaching crunch time. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) projected that the number of males using tobacco is on the decline for the first time, which they called “a powerful shift in the global tobacco epidemic.”
Clearly aware of this trend, tobacco giants have realized that their business can survive in the post-cigarette world provided they have a firm grasp on the emerging market of cigarette alternatives. Leaked internal documents have shown that big tobacco has attempted to foster the image they are working towards a “smoke-free future” in order to bolster their public image and legitimize their position in the regulatory debate of e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products.
Whether these alternatives are actually any safer than conventional burnt tobacco is another question. Some evidence suggests that heat-not-burn products may be less harmful than smoking, but these studies have been largely funded by the tobacco industry, according to Cancer Research UK. Currently, health authorities sit on the fence on the question of the safety of heated tobacco products, arguing more research is needed. They take a similar stance on e-cigarettes, although they believe they have some potential to benefit adult smokers looking to kick their cigarette habit.
Meanwhile, as the debate and power struggle continues, more than eight million people die from tobacco each year.