In 1847 Mr Philip Morris opened the doors of his tobacconist’s shop on Bond Street for the first time. In 1999, Philip Morris International finally accepted that smoking is addictive and causes cancer and other diseases. In 2016, Philip Morris International decided to stop selling cigarettes one of these days. The other day I walked into the new IQOS store on Kensington High Street and lit up my first Philip Morris alternative reduced-risk product. And between puffs spoke to Peter Nixon, the managing director of Philip Morris.
It was little like going through a portal into an alternate universe. I say “lit up”, but what I actually did was put my “heet” on charge, wait till a little green light stopped blinking, then took a drag.
Peter Nixon smokes only IQOS. And although I appreciate this is a limited sample, I have to report that he looks young, tanned, fit, and in excellent physical and mental shape. He also has a good sense of humour. “This is like McDonalds telling you to give up junk food and stick with salads, I know,” he said. His clothes do not smell of cigarettes. His teeth are white not brown. He looks as if he should be the MD of Nike or Adidas.
He was born in London, the son of a policeman and a nurse. He studied business and Japanese at Cardiff University, went to work in Japan for Price Waterhouse, and married a Japanese woman. Apparently in Japanese, which shifts according to who you’re talking to, “the customer gets the highest level of respect”. Apart from the Emperor that is. It felt like that in the IQOS store.
Nixon joined Philip Morris 15 years ago and set up IQOS in Russia, starting from a couple of people in one office and expanding to 900 employees and 35 stores over an 18-month period. He is genuinely concerned about existing smokers. There are still seven and half million smokers in England alone. Half of them will die prematurely. “The goal is for us to get them to stop,” he says (and switch to IQOS). I believe him.
He speaks like a millennial. “We are looking to make an emotional connection, based on trust.” His brief now is to “transform the environment”, to change people’s behaviour and coordinate with government and media. His message is something like the opposite to Margaret Thatcher’s of old, “There really is an alternative.”
Nixon is almost evangelical in his conviction and sense of purpose. He speaks of “converting” people, but he wanted to tone that down to “helping people to switch”.
Among his 400 employees in London apparently, there is one hold-out who still smokes. “I’m working on him though.”
Nixon says simply, “There is no reason for anyone to smoke any more. I want the 40-a-day Marlboro guy to walk in here.”
Which dramatises a fundamental ambivalence. Philip Morris still makes Marlboro, the biggest-selling brand of cigarette in the world. On the other hand, the company set up the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World in 2017. They spent in the region of £3bn in R&D to come up with a cigarette substitute that really replicates the smoking experience.
The whole company has undergone a metamorphosis. Not just in terms of its message. “All we had to do once,” says Nixon, “was make sure there were packets on a shelf. Now we work with scientists and electronics and we open stores like this one. It’s a different world. It’s exciting.”
The IQOS store looks and feels like an Apple store: bright, airy, spacious, but more comfortable. With better coffee. And the IQOS non-smoking-but-smoking device is the size of your phone. In tune with the zeitgeist, if I want to “make the change”, I can join a “forum” and talk about my experiences, I can hook up with a “coach”, and I can get online advice from “icare”. They will phone you up to check how you’re feeling. There’s a support system. And of course there is a Facebook page. “The last thing we want is for you to go back to cigarettes,” Nixon says. “We want to help.”
But he also has a shrewd business brain. “We had to disrupt ourselves, because if we don’t we’ll only be disrupted by some startup or other.”
The new mantra is “heat not burn”. The point of the technology, at the core of which is the “heat blade”, is to heat up the tobacco enough to give you the nicotine flavour and effect but without releasing the tar and toxic chemicals that lead to cancer, heart disease, and oblivion. Around 90-95 per cent risk reduction, they say. But enough theory, I had to test it out in practice.
I would describe myself as a non-smoker, but one who has had the occasional cigarette, often to keep the serious smoker company. So I know what a cigarette tastes like. After smoking (or possibly not smoking) an IQOS – in fact, three of them, yellow (mild), amber (stronger) and menthol – I can put my hand on my heart and say it tastes just like a cigarette. And it feels like a cigarette in your mouth. If you’re clever enough, I imagine you could produce smoke rings too. It’s a bit like going gluten-free. Or perhaps driving an electric car, with zero pollution.
One great thing about IQOS: it has limited duration. Unlike the vape or e-cigarette, it lasts as long as a real cigarette lasts. Around 14 puffs, six minutes. I had a smoke, but when I took the “stick” or “heet” out of the device and turned it around and looked at the other end of it – there the tobacco still was. It hadn’t been burned, just squashed a little. Toasted perhaps. Minus the nicotine. There was no butt to dispose of. There was no ash on the carpet. There was no smell on my clothes.
I am not making a final judgment on the above and I remain strictly objective and detached, but the fact is I texted my roll-your-own son after leaving IQOS and suggested he might like a “guided trial”. He agreed.
You can be as sceptical as you like. But if you are, I just have one question for you: when is someone from Tate & Lyle going to announce that sugar is bad for you?