January 30, 2018
Philip Morris Hopes Dashed by US Panel
Another week, another ruling and yet more bad news for tobacco company Philip Morris International. According to a ruling passed down from an advisory panel at the US Food and Drug Administration, Philip Morris should not be “allowed to claim that its iQOS tobacco device can ‘reduce the risk of tobacco-related diseases’ when compared to cigarettes.
The move is a tough blow to Philip Morris International, which has been trying to ride a unique advertising campaign to more sales of its e-cigarette products. As part of its push to get more people using its e-devices, Philip Morris International has been rolling out ad campaigns saying it planned to give up cigarettes for the new year. The key to that campaign was being able to tell customers the e-cigarette alternatives to traditional smokes were healthier. They wanted to be able to market the iQOS, a digital device that heats rather than burns tobacco, as a safer alternative. That campaign has largely been successful outside the United States, where about four million customers now choose the iQOS over traditional cigarettes. However, to sell it in the US as advertised, the company must obtain FDA approval. So far, that pursuit is not working out as planned.
The FDA’s decision is particularly problematic for Philip Morris because, while the panel said the product does expose users to “lower levels” of harmful chemicals, the panel also ruled that these lower levels did not translate into measurably less risk of disease or death. Philip Morris argued otherwise but to no avail. Of course, this panel’s ruling is not the final word on the subject. Perhaps ironically, the FDA at large is not bound to follow the recommendation of its own panel. The Administration could offer a different policy statement based on other data. While no one can say how likely this is, the FDA did telegraph a willingness to come to a happy medium on this issue, saying it would consider a new policy that would encourage tobacco companies to reduce the amount of nicotine in cigarettes while increasing the amount of “lower risk” alternatives. These lower risk alternatives could include e-cigarettes.
So, is that already a mixed message from the FDA? Philip Morris International sure thinks so. The company believes it has a “healthier” product and would like to come to market in the USA in the same way they have in some European countries, with a full-court e-cigarette press of advertising and marketing based around the “healthier” concept.
But, for now, that isn’t going to happen. And, while that could change sometime down the road, for the time being, the headlines have more for those who oppose tobacco companies that for those who support them.
Ronn Torossian is the Founder and CEO of the New York based public relations firm 5WPR: one of the 20 largest PR Firms in the United States.