Transformation of the Tobacco Industry: strategy, competition, & ethics

October 1, 2021

Tobacco industry views were presented by representatives of PMI, BAT, JTI and JUUL Labs in a panel discussion chaired Mr. Clive Bates. How will manufacturers of low-risk products evolve over the next 10-20 years, will they be predators, competitors or players trying to address the problems their products have caused over the past decades, Mr. Clives formulated the question to start the debate.

Transformation of the tobacco industry & innovation

In her opening remark, Dr. Gizelle Baker, PMI, emphasised the importance of science, technology, and innovation. Harms caused by smoking and combustible cigarettes, smoking-related diseases is where the journey of tobacco industry’s transformation started from, she pointed out. Innovation has brought new products that are evolving quickly, making possible the delivery of nicotine with substantially lower levels of toxicants, and consumers are switching to them. These products have the potential to have a huge impact to public health, moving people to less harmful alternatives and reducing the burden of smoking-related diseases, Dr. Baker said, so we should all come together and see how to maximise this potential and drive even better innovation.

The transformation of the tobacco industry is still going on, is still evolving, Mrs. Sharon Goodall,  BAT, underlined. Consumers’ needs, regulations and of course innovation are also evolving, so we learn from the past but keep looking forward. Innovation is driven by consumers’ needs, human needs, she said. The harm reduction purpose drives and accelerates the need for transformation, Mrs. Goodall underlined, adding that transformation of tobacco industry is sincere and an ongoing process.

Approaching the subject from the scientific perspective, Dr. Ian Jones, JTI, spoke about the transformation of science that is the cornerstone in the transformation of the tobacco industry, in order to respond to the evolving human needs. Of course, there are still many scientific questions to be answered about these new products, particularly about the long-term effects of use, the panellist added. What is really worrying, Dr Jones said, is that although industry in our days provides excellent scientific data, there is a lot of suspicion about industry science.

The most important aspect of transformation is the consumer, Mr. Joe Murillo, JUUL Labs, pointed out. Consumers, smokers, are demanding different products, and are driving the innovation, the competition, and the transformation of the tobacco industry, he explained. Products are improving, the science is improving; FDA decisions showed that we can see improvement even in regulatory frameworks, Mr. Murillo said. The irrational criticism of science, industry’s scientific data, is indeed disappointing, the panellist agreed with the former speaker, since it is good evidence-based science. Of course, there are regulatory issues to be handled, but consumers must know and understand the absolute and relative risks of products to make informed choices, Mr. Murillo concluded, putting emphasis on the need for better communication with smokers and a problem-solving approach.

The relation between innovation and regulation

Thanking all panellists for their interesting remarks and pointing out that, even if these products don’t work for every smoker now, after ten more years of innovation we will be able to offer smokers powerful alternative to cigarettes products, Mr. Bates asked the panellists to comment on the relation between innovation and regulation and how regulators’ restrictions may affect innovation.

Consumers need information and support, they need motivation, appealing products that meet their needs, Dr. Baker said, and if regulations’ restrictions make products unappealing, they won’t switch, and they will continue smoking the way more harmful combustible cigarettes. On the other side, we need of course to prevent youth from starting the use of tobacco products, but we can do it with control on the markets and restricted access to youth, without ignoring the adult smokers’ needs. We need a good regulatory framework with standards, she concluded, keeping in mind that regulation shouldn’t prevent innovation from coming.

There are two types of regulation, one focused on intended users, adult smokers, and the second focused on non-users, unintended users, Mr. Bates pointed out, wondering how we can find a balance between these two forms of regulation.

Innovation needs sufficient space, Dr. Jones said, we should of course have boundaries to prevent unintended use, but boundaries that allow innovation to occur.

We definitely need to pay attention for the right balance, Mr. Murillo added, we must be careful and restrict the access to youth, but without losing the opportunity to help the adult smokers who can’t quit smoking to suffer less health consequences.

Unknown risks of novel products & scepticism

Unknown risks play a large role in this debate, since the transformation of the industry we discuss is essentially a transformation from people addicted to a product that has known risks to a product that has unknown risks, Mr. Bates said, asking the panellists how much is after all unknown.

There will be always questions, since it is an evolving field, an evolving technology, but science is very promising and shows the potentials of these products, Dr. Jones pointed out.

Industry science looks, in my opinion, very credible, but there is a lot of scepticism surrounding it, Mr. Bates said, wondering what could be done to change the hostile environment industry science faces.

Indeed, there is a lot of scepticism about industry science, because people think that is biased, Dr. Baker said. Everybody can be biased, she continued, but the right question is to ask what the impact of bias on a study, on its results was; to say that a study is biased without examining thoroughly its data doesn’t seem to move in the direction of science. On the other hand, regulators are the ones who can benefit the most from strong data to support and justify their decision making, she concluded.

A lot of risk claims are expressed about new tobacco products, Mr. Bates said, asking Mrs. Goodall if she believes that industry should be more active in the scientific dispute about these products or not.

Industry needs to focus on what it does well, which is really good science, and continue to get that science out and shared, Mrs. Goodall said. There will always be claims; industry should continue with science, provide strong data and not to be distracted by any kind of expressed claims. Only science will offer the data needed to persuade the regulators about the value of products for public health.

In conclusion…

Closing the panel discussion and thanking all participants, Mr. Bates asked the panellists for a last phrase on the subject.

Consumers are driving this transformation, since it is based on their needs, Dr. Jones said, while Dr. Baker underlined that industry has the technology to continue to better innovate, to better meet the consumers’ needs and to deliver better harm reduction products, but industry, regulators, and public health should work all together to have the best possible outcomes. Mrs. Goodall focused on the importance of positivity, saying that we all need to remain positive in an environment that becomes increasingly challenging, and remember that, although giant leaps have been made, we can do even better. Last, Mr. Murillo pointed out that whether the science gets published or not, industry have to do science, since facts are in favour of harm reduction.