As a public health crisis intensifies over vaping, Philip Morris International’s own cigarette alternative is quietly arriving in the U.S.
A minimalist, glass-front store in Lenox Square mall in the affluent Buckhead area of Atlanta, Georgia, is offering the company’s device, which heats a tobacco plug without burning it.
It’s one of two stores planned for the area that will also be complemented by points of sale such as kiosks, in-store displays in shops like Circle K and even mobile units that travel around the city. The goal is to provide guided trials to convert adult smokers.
The Lenox Square store is marked only with “IQOS,” giving little indication that it’s selling tobacco-related products. On the door, small white lettering says “Smokers 21 + welcome,” and a woman at the door checks IDs and asks potential customers if they’re smokers. If they say they aren’t, they can enter the store but can’t try the devices or buy them.
Philip Morris already sells IQOS in more than 40 countries, and had said that Atlanta would be a test market once it started U.S. sales. Altria Group, which split off from Philip Morris but still sells Marlboros in the U.S., is also marketing IQOS there. Philip Morris sells the Marlboro brand outside the U.S.
Altria spokesman David Sutton said Thursday that the store has been in “soft operational mode” for over a week, and that a second location will open soon at the Mall of Georgia, northeast of the city. Two mobile units will also start roaming Atlanta.
The discreet launch shows how Altria and Philip Morris are trying to delicately test the U.S. waters with IQOS — which is key to the companies’ future as tobacco use declines — even as health officials crack down on vaping amid an outbreak of illnesses and deaths.
“We’re looking to be as responsible as we can be as we commercialize and market this product,” Sutton said in a phone interview, citing the company’s 21-plus age limit that’s higher than the state’s legal smoking age of 18. The company doesn’t plan on using influencers to post about the devices on social media, and they won’t be sold online.
“If you are interested you can make an appointment online to go to a store and do the education — do the guided trial and begin your conversion,” Sutton said.
Altria also won’t market the product to those that vape. Like non-smokers, adult users of vape products can enter the store, but won’t be given a trial or a chance to purchase the product, Sutton said.
E-cigarette maker Juul Labs and competitors are under intense scrutiny as health authorities have blamed vaping products for at least 18 deaths and more than 1,000 illnesses. Their use of non-traditional flavors, like watermelon and strawberry milk, and marketing that appeals to underage users has particularly been lambasted and caused Juul to stop advertising and lobbying. It has also discontinued most flavors.
Altria last year invested almost $13 billion in Juul to get a 35% stake. That holding was blamed for helping to derail a deal that would have brought Altria and Philip Morris back together.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working with the Food and Drug Administration and state health authorities to investigate the ailments. A study published this week by Mayo Clinic pathologists said they are most likely caused by exposure to toxic chemicals.
Philip Morris says IQOS is a different kind of product than other vaping devices. It has been designed specifically to convert cigarette smokers with a similar tobacco flavor. It heats a dry tobacco product to create an aerosol, and unlike vape devices, it doesn’t have a liquid that is vaporized. An IQOS tobacco plug lasts about the same amount of time as a regular cigarette — around 14 puffs or 6 minutes.
Philip Morris Chief Operating Officer Jacek Olczak said in a phone interview with Bloomberg News earlier this week that the product should be marketed to people who vape, emphasizing that IQOS has been authorized for U.S. sales by the FDA after a review — a process that Juul and other vape products haven’t been through.
In authorizing it for U.S. sales, the FDA also restricted how it could be marketed, saying the device was akin to cigarettes and should be monitored to make sure it doesn’t attract youth. The agency has yet to approve a request that would allow IQOS advertisements that say product is less risky relative to cigarettes.
Philip Morris says that because the tobacco is heated and not burned, the nicotine-containing vapor produced has less harmful chemicals than cigarette smoke. The company says on its website the product is not risk-free, but offers less risk of harm compared with smoking tobacco products.
“If a vape user is getting scared, there’s a high-risk case they will return to conventional cigarette — which could be absolutely disastrous from a public health perspective,” Olczak said. “Altria should offer the alternative, which is IQOS.”
The device being sold in the U.S. is IQOS 2.4, and conversations with the FDA are underway about newer models.