Research team examines marketing strategies for new e-cigarette

A tobacco control expert at the Milken Institute School of Public Health is partnering with an Israeli university to study marketing strategies for a new electronic cigarette.

The National Institutes of Health awarded $1.2 million to researchers to examine how the cigarette company Philip Morris International’s marketing strategies for the heated tobacco product IQOS – which stands for “I Quit Ordinary Smoking” – affect consumer behavior. Public health experts said Philip Morris’ decision to market its product as high-tech will appeal to both high-income and younger people who seek out new technology.

Carla Berg, a professor of prevention and community health and the associate center director for population sciences and policy at the Cancer Center, said Philip Morris started selling the IQOS in the United States in October after receiving Food and Drug Administration approval. The company now sells the product in more than 30 countries, she said.

Berg said studies indicate that 9 percent of U.S. youth knew about the IQOS prior to its FDA approval. She said research from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids – an organization aimed at decreasing youth tobacco consumption – suggests that Philip Morris is marketing the IQOS toward younger consumers.

“Because youth may be interested in using this product, it is critical to conduct research that can help U.S. researchers curb youth use of a tobacco product,” she said in an email. “After all, no tobacco product is safe for youth use.”

Berg said Philip Morris has used “traditional” media – like print, television and billboards – and digital media to advertise the product. She said Philip Morris relies on “point-of-sale” marketing – advertising done in or near stores – because of restrictions on tobacco advertising in some countries.

She said the study aims to advance efforts to mitigate the tobacco industry’s negative impact on young consumers.

“The goal of the study is to examine IQOS marketing and its impact on consumer behavior with the goal of advancing regulatory efforts to minimize harms of tobacco products,” Berg said.

She said Philip Morris acknowledges the health risks of traditional cigarettes – like lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – and claims that the IQOS is a “cleaner,” “reduced-risk” product that is less likely to harm health. Berg said researchers have not substantiated Philip Morris’ claims that the IQOS is safer than traditional tobacco products.

“IQOS has been marketed as a satisfactory alternative to traditional cigarettes,” Berg said. “It has also been marketed as a clean, chic and pure product.”

D.C. councilmembers proposed a bill last month that would ban the sale of e-cigarettes in the District after research showed that harmful ingredients in e-cigarette products can double the risks of heart attacks.

Public health experts said Phillip Morris markets the IQOS as a “high-class” product to differentiate the e-cigarette from other tobacco products, which will attract new youth and higher-income consumers.

Lucy Popova, an assistant professor of health promotion and behavior at Georgia State University, said Philip Morris markets the IQOS as a “high-tech” and “high-class” product in its stores to attract wealthier consumers who would not otherwise purchase tobacco products.

Popova said Philip Morris is using a high-tech appearance to market to higher-income people looking to quit smoking and youth consumers instead of traditional consumers, like low-income populations who are more likely to smoke. She said available data on the IQOS show that the product exposes users to many of the same harmful chemicals as traditional cigarettes.

“Youth and young adults find novel high-tech products appealing, and, therefore, the IQOS marketing will likely lead to some youth and young adults trying and using the product, possibly among those who would not otherwise use other tobacco products,” Popova said. “Use of any tobacco product is harmful.”

Raymond Niaura, the interim chair of the epidemiology department and a professor of social and behavioral sciences at New York University, said the FDA did not give Philip Morris permission to market the IQOS as a “reduced harm product,” meaning the product is less dangerous than normal cigarettes. He said the company is currently introducing the product as “different” than traditional tobacco products, like cigarettes, in the U.S. market.

Niaura said the IQOS could encourage smokers to switch to heated tobacco products, which have a lower level of toxins. But he said IQOS delivers the same amount of nicotine as a regular cigarette.

“We know almost nothing about how this is going to work, so that’s why the research is important,” he said. “It’s important to start now, before the product is marketed all across the country.”

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