For smokers who can’t quit, are ‘reduced risk’ cigarettes the future?

    24 November 2015

    Have you ever tried giving up smoking? I’ve dedicated almost as much time to giving up smoking as I have spent actually smoking. I’ve tried nicorette patches and chewing gum; I have attempted the lozenges, defied hypnosis, and inhaled countless vaporised e-cigarettes. Still I remain addicted. And so, when I heard about a new technology that seemed to replicate the experience of smoking an actual cigarette without most of the harmful effects, I was eager to try it. I agreed to one week of replacing cigarettes with something called ‘heat-not-burn’, ever hopeful that this time I’d stub out my habit once and for all.

    It is unlike any other tobacco replacement product I have hitherto tried — conceptually, scientifically and practically. Essentially, heat-not-burn is the lovechild of the conventional cigarette and the vaporiser. It is tobacco-based, yet it operates with an electric charger. While not yet available in Britain (update: now it is), it is currently sold in Japan, Switzerland and Milan. The kit I try is from Philip Morris, though other tobacco manufacturers make them too.

    I am provided with the following: a portable charging box, an electric charger for said box, an electric wand the size of an index finger and a packet of heat sticks (mini-cigarettes) about two inches long. The mini-cigarettes contain tobacco and glycerin, but significantly less of the other nasty components of your everyday fag.

    When struck by the desperate and persisting desire to smoke, you simply remove the electric wand from its box, insert branded mini-cigarette and click a button to ‘cook’ or ‘heat’ the tobacco stick. You can then smoke as you would an ordinary cigarette, supposedly for six minutes or 14 puffs.

    In my trial, I was initially impressed and perplexed. Using heat-not-burn is as close to a replication of smoking a cigarette as you can get: you inhale tobacco, you exhale vapour. The electric sticks are heavier than the real deal, but this is a minor point when one considers the reduced damage to the lungs, heart, blood vessels, circulation etc. How could it be that this object, so strikingly similar to the cigarette, is not causing equal damage?

    It is all about combustion. Your average cigarette is burnt at temperatures between 800 and 900 degrees Celsius (1472 and 1652 Fahrenheit). These high temperatures cause the breakdown of tobacco and the production of harmful chemicals. With heat-not-burn, the tobacco stick is cooked at temperatures between 50 and 250 degrees Celsius (122 and 482 Fahrenheit) — but it doesn’t burn, and therefore the number of toxic chemicals released from the tobacco is greatly reduced. Research has shown that the levels of chemicals in heat-not-burns are 90 per cent lower than those in their traditional counterpart.

    A packet of the IQOS heat sticks sold in Japan (Photo: Philip Morris)

    A packet of the IQOS heat sticks sold in Japan (Photo: Philip Morris)

    The manufacturers say it is potentially a ‘reduced risk’ product rather than ‘no risk’, and that it is still in development. In Italy, the device costs 70 euros and each pack of 20 heat sticks is five euros.

    As well as being better for you, the heat-not-burn stick is less smelly than a conventional cigarette and, better yet, produces no ash. But there are also some unwanted differences between the heat-not-burn experience and the real McCoy. First, the taste — described by a friend as ‘old teabags’. Heat-not-burn also cannot deliver exactly the same hit. It offers a consistent but pleasant trickling of calm, but it doesn’t quite compare to the curious ecstasy occasioned by a lungful of real, harmful smoke.

    Does it replace the traditional cigarette? Almost, but unfortunately not entirely. Still, it’s not bad — and, once it is being sold in the UK, I’ve no doubt I’ll be queuing at the counter, anxious to get my hands (and my lungs) on some.