Does IQOS stand a chance against vaping in the UK?


For decades, tobacco companies have attempted to design a safer cigarette as a hedge against the eventual obsolescence of their core products.

The tobacco companies knew, of course, that smoking kills, and they knew that fact would eventually lead to a decline in smoking rates unless something less harmful could be developed.

Ultimately, vaping beat the tobacco companies to the punch by providing an alternative that was significantly less harmful while being just as satisfying. The tobacco companies have pressed on undeterred in their quest to develop a safer cigarette, though, even as they ultimately developed or acquired vaping brands of their own. The most successful attempt to date has been the IQOS system from Philip Morris. IQOS heats tobacco without burning it, and research suggests that emissions from IQOS contain fewer harmful chemicals than tobacco smoke.

Will IQOS be the product that finally unseats the traditional tobacco cigarette in Britain, or will vaping industry stalwarts like V2 Cigs UK force IQOS to settle for a distant second-place finish in the tobacco harm reduction industry? That’s the question we’ll examine in this article – but first, let’s learn more about how we got to where we are today.

Safer Cigarettes: A Brief History

Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds – the makers of Marlboro and Camel, respectively – have both released alternative cigarettes that heat tobacco rather than burning it. Reynolds’ experiments initially resulted in the release of the Premier cigarette in 1988 along with a revised version called Eclipse in 1996. Both cigarettes used carbon elements to heat glycerine-impregnated tobacco. The glycerine turned to vapour, carrying the flavour and nicotine from the tobacco along with it. Neither Premier nor Eclipse were terribly successful. As of 2018, though, Reynolds was considering bringing Eclipse back to the market.

Philip Morris, meanwhile, had a different idea of how safer cigarettes would work. They released their first heat-not-burn tobacco product – Accord – in 1997. Accord used short cigarettes that inserted into a pager-sized battery unit. When the user drew on the cigarette, heating blades in the battery unit heated the tobacco to the point of pyrolysis, releasing nicotine-infused vapour without igniting the cigarette.

In 1997, people who tested the Accord smoking system didn’t think it was likely to trigger a paradigm shift in the tobacco industry. They said that no one would want to be seen sitting in a bar sucking on something that looked like a pager. They thought that Accord had an acceptable flavour, though, and they opined that the system had potential if Philip Morris could develop a holder much closer in size to a cigarette. That’s essentially what IQOS is; it’s the Accord system with a much smaller holder.

How Vaping Beat Big Tobacco to the Punch

While the tobacco companies worked without much success on developing an alternative to traditional smoking that still used tobacco, a Chinese pharmacist named Hon Lik was hard at work developing a smoking alternative of his own. A long-time smoker, Lik wanted to create a product that used a tobacco-free nicotine liquid rather than actual tobacco leaves.

Hon Lik’s e-cigarette ended up being the perfect product for the perfect time and place. Working for a Chinese corporation, Lik had access to factories that could mass produce his product – and since Lik’s e-cigarette used nicotine liquid rather than tobacco, the device could be almost as small as a real cigarette.

One benefit of the e-cigarette’s Chinese origin was the fact that Hon Lik’s employer could almost immediately put the device into mass production. Another benefit, however, was the fact that many of China’s electronics makers in Shenzhen aren’t particularly concerned about intellectual property laws. Almost immediately, clones of Lik’s e-cigarette began to appear. Some of those clones worked better than the original device. E-cigarettes began to fan out from Shenzhen and proliferate around the world. By the early 2010s, smokers were buying them by the thousands.

Around 3.6 million people in the UK now vape. After several mergers and acquisitions, Hon Lik now works for Imperial Brands, the British owner of the Blu e-cigarette brand.

The Success of IQOS in Japan

IQOS launched in 2014 with Japan as its primary initial market. Nicotine e-liquid was – and remains – illegal in Japan, making that country the perfect test market for a tobacco-based harm reduction product. Japan was also the perfect place in which to launch a new tobacco product because Philip Morris could advertise IQOS in ways – via placements on TV programs, for example – that wouldn’t be legal in other countries.

IQOS is very similar to Accord in concept. The holder is much smaller, though, making IQOS closer in appearance to a normal cigarette compared to Accord. IQOS also operates at a lower temperature but contains more nicotine.

Philip Morris’s research suggests that IQOS emits far fewer toxins than cigarette smoke. It still uses tobacco, though, and it heats the tobacco to the point of pyrolysis – so it is definitely not harmless. A 2018 study found that IQOS emits far fewer carbonyls than traditional cigarettes. A vaping device using e-liquid, however, emits significantly fewer carbonyls than IQOS.

An estimated 3.1 million people in Japan use IQOS.

Will IQOS Overtake Vaping in the UK?

With the IQOS system, Philip Morris has finally developed a tobacco-based harm reduction alternative that seems compelling enough for smokers willing to switch to something that might be less dangerous. In Japan – a market in which nicotine e-liquid isn’t legal – smokers have switched to IQOS by the millions. IQOS has not managed to overtake vaping, though, in any market where nicotine e-liquid is legal.

Consumers are aware that vaping has several key advantages over IQOS. The two most notable advantages are the fact that nicotine e-liquids offer a much greater variety of flavours and that vaping – at least according to the research currently available – appears much safer than IQOS.

Big Tobacco, however, plays the long game. Although IQOS may never overtake vaping in the UK, it provides a hedge against any future government regulations that could change the nature of the vaping industry in some way. At the very least, IQOS does provide an alternative for smokers who will not switch to something less harmful unless it tastes like real tobacco.