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How Philip Morris International is using data to deliver a smoke-free future
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How Philip Morris International is using data to deliver a smoke-free future

Decades ago, they were best known for selling cigarettes. Today, Philip Morris International (PMI) is a much broader business — reflecting changing attitudes to, and ways of consuming, tobacco. Yet misinformation continues to exist about alternatives to smoking, including that smoke-free alternatives are no less harmful.

Informed by data, and transparently and comprehensively communicating their changed approach to consumers, PMI is now trying to fight that misinformation and chart a course to a smoke-free future. And they're doing that in collaboration with regulators and health bodies, as Dr. Moira Gilchrist, the company's vice president of strategic and scientific communications, explains.

A fireside chat with Philip Morris International www.youtube.com

Protocol sits down for a fireside chat with Philip Morris International's VP of Strategic & Scientific Communications, Dr. Moira Gilchrist.

What things do people get wrong about smoke-free products, and where does that come from?

It's difficult to put my finger on exactly what it is. But I think there are a number of things that have happened in society. Firstly, people who are in charge of making policies are scientists in academic institutions and regulatory agencies who oftentimes don't know smokers. Smoking rates have decreased quite significantly, which is a good thing for public health. But many people don't have smokers in their social circles. It's almost as if the problem of smoking, to some people's minds, has almost disappeared. And yet, it has moved into other areas of society. Lower socioeconomic groups, for example, have much higher smoking prevalence rates in higher socioeconomic circles.

A second aspect is people's perceptions of the tobacco industry. Historically, the allegations made against the tobacco industry, which has made all of the debate very divisive, has caused a real lack of trust. But as a scientist, I'd ask us to put that aside for one moment. There are a billion people still using cigarettes. Can we look at the facts and evidence, and decide what the best thing to do is going forward for those people?

How have attitudes to smoking — and its alternatives — changed over time, and how has PMI shifted alongside that?

I think every single person on the planet today knows how harmful smoking is. But the vast majority of smokers in any given year just simply continue to smoke cigarettes, although they know that the best thing that they can do is to quit.

What has happened over the last decade or so, with the advent of products like electronic cigarettes, is that some smokers have started to think, "OK, well, maybe there might be a trade-off: This product may not taste as good as my regular cigarette, it may not give me quite the satisfaction that my regular cigarette gives me. But maybe I'll give it a try." We've seen large numbers of people across the world, particularly in countries like the United Kingdom, France and the United States, have switched away from cigarettes to products like electronic cigarettes, or heated tobacco products, which are prevalent in other countries like Japan.

Society is having a moment. Attitudes and feelings about tobacco companies and tobacco products from the past are really being challenged by this new set of products. We have to accept that there are more than a billion people on the planet today who will continue to smoke. So for those people, we need to look closely at these alternatives, and try to encourage those people, if they're not going to quit, to instead switch to a suite of different products that are potentially a better choice.

What are the alternatives out there for individuals?

From a scientific perspective, we know that it's the combustion — the burning of tobacco — that causes the production of the vast majority of the harmful chemicals that end up causing smoking-related diseases. We as a company started to investigate ways of delivering nicotine's taste and flavor as alternative products for adult smokers that don't involve the burning of tobacco.

There'll be some who believe PMI should be kept at arms' length from any process of a smoke-free future. Why do you think they're wrong?

You can choose to live in the past, or you can choose to move forward into the future. What we want to do is to move forward into the future. Nobody can — nothing I can do or say will change the past. But what I do see and what the scientists in our company are doing can really have an impact on the future. We've produced high-quality data. And we also talk to smokers each and every day. We know what they're thinking and feeling. Governments and policymakers need to get into that level of understanding as well. We can help to bring that to the table.

What role do you want PMI to have in shaping the future and tackling the issues around smoking?

We understand that there are different opinions. We understand that there are a multitude of different ways you can look at this issue. But, you know, our feeling is that you can't just ignore one large section of society that could be part of the solution to this — one of the world's biggest problems.

I think it's important to scrutinize us. Have a look at what we're seeing and doing. Have a look at the data. Have a look at our transformation matrix, for example, which we've made publicly available. Come and discuss what the best thing to do is, instead of just trying to pretend that we don't exist, and trying to pretend that these products don't exist.

And what impact do you think you can have inside the tent, rather than being outside it?

It's about bringing facts and evidence to the debate. We see a lot of misinformation and sometimes outright disinformation about smoke-free products, and our company as well. I think we can help to bring facts and evidence which are verifiable to the discussion, rather than relying on others to interpret what they think the data shows. Why not get it from the people who actually develop the data? I think that would help to move things forward more quickly.

How has the mass of data and science collected about smoking helped inform PMI's strategies for a smoke-free future?

Every decision we make about these products is based on facts and evidence. What we communicate to consumers has to always be based on the scientific evidence, and we will take great pains to ensure that that's the case no matter which country we're operating in. But then also, when we're engaging with regulators and governments, we make sure that those positions that we're bringing are based on facts and evidence. It's something I'm really proud of: We have a really strict system to ensure that everything is based on good-quality data.

What kind of journey has the company been on?

It's been a dramatic change. I think if people were looking at any other industry, like the oil industry or the automotive industry, they would be just blown away at how much we've managed to do in just the last five years.

We've gone from being a company that had all of its revenues coming from combustible cigarettes in 2015, essentially, to now in 2020, smoke-free alternatives making up almost a quarter of our net revenues. In five years, that's a massive transformation that has the potential not just to be good for business, but to be good for public health as well.

Let's focus on going faster. We will go as fast as we possibly can. But we need the help of governments, civil society, public health folks, scientists and the general public to make this shift happen even more quickly.

And what's next?

We're going through another phase change, as we'd say in science. I joined the company at step one of our transformation, which was really to put in place all of the efforts that we have done for smoke-free alternatives. But now we're entering a second phase and preparing the ground to move beyond tobacco. We announced at our investor day in February this year that we're looking at things like inhaled therapeutics and self-care wellness products.

We're just at the beginning of that journey. We've made a couple of acquisitions in this area, which I think are going to set us up for a really exciting future in the long term that has absolutely nothing to do with the historical success of the company.