Unsmoking the World: The Philip Morris Rebranding Effort

God really must love Philip Morris.

— John Safran, Haaretz, November 29, 2021

John Safran is a scamp, but in the finest tradition of investigative ones.  With the enthusiasm of a bloodhound, he gets wind of a scent and goes for it.  Of recent interest to his gonzo style of comedic yet lethal line of inquiry was the tobacco giant, Philip Morris International (PMI), and the generally sinister behaviour of big tobacco.  The result of his findings: Puff Piece: How Philip Morris set vaping alight (and burned down the English language).

While Puff Piece was published in 2021, it continues to be frighteningly relevant to efforts by big tobacco to clean, ostensibly, their Augean stables, even as they continue dirtying the bodies of those who persist in puffing.  Safran identifies an absurdist language at play, a vulgar negation of meaning.  Philip Morris, for instance, envisages a future without cigarettes and intends to “unsmoke” the world.

The company also gave the world its IQOS products, notably the HeatStick, which purportedly heats the tobacco instead of burning it, leading the user to engage in an act of non-smoking.  “Because they don’t burn the tobacco,” states the company website, “these products are smoke-free producing a nicotine-containing aerosol that is fundamentally different from cigarette smoke.”  A gentle warning accompanies the observation: such products are not free of risks; they “provide nicotine, which is addictive, but our science shows they are a better choice for adults than continuing to smoke cigarettes.”

To give his work deep lashings of authenticity, Safran took up smoking and vaping.  He found himself short of breath.  He began having chest pains.  To secure more intimate access to the company, Safran purchased shares.  Acting as a concerned shareholder, he gave PMI’s International Investor Relations a call, expressing worries that a migration of smokers to IQOS would not see them remain users, and certainly not dedicated ones.  Not so, came the brisk reply; they tended to be a “one-to-one” replacement between cigarettes and the company’s HeatSticks.  A smoker’s daily complement, in other words, would be replaced by one using IQOS.  Addiction would not so much be ended as substituted.

Over the last few years, the company has gone tar deep into the cesspool of public relations and advertising, coming up with a dastardly rebrand campaign. No longer is it the purveyor of addictive, killer products.  This is the happy company, a keen proponent of wellness, a word that seems to have found its way into everything from the pronouncements of mat bound yogis to suited CEOs in the corporate boardroom.

In February 2021, the company announced its Beyond Nicotine strategy, which, in the words of CEO Jacek Olczak, “articulates a clear ambition to leverage our expertise in inhalation and aerosolization into adjacent areas – including respiratory drug delivery and selfcare wellness – with a goal to reach at least USD1 billion in net revenues by 2025.”

Banish smoking from the lexicon, along with its poisonous implications (cigarettes take the lives of half of its users, killing eight million per annum or, as Safran likes to call it, “a Holocaust and a quarter per annum”).  In its place come those innocuous clumsy terms: inhalation and aerosolization.  It makes it so much easier to then refocus the aim of production away from the idea of smoke as wicked to products supposedly devoid of it.  Indeed, by 2025, PMI hopes to net over 50 percent of total net revenue from smoke free products.

In line with this strategy of rebranding in the name of benevolence, PMI acquired the British inhaler company Vectura some months later.  In July, Olczak promised that acquiring Vectura “following the recently announced agreement to acquire Fertin Pharma, will position us to accelerate this journey by expanding our capabilities in innovative inhaled and oral product formulations in order to deliver long-term growth and returns.”

Spinning and weaving meanings distant from their consequences, PMI’s dissembling CEO insists that such products are “inhaled therapeutics”, with his company committed “to science and the financial resources to empower Vectura’s skilled team to execute on an ambitious long-term vision.”

The company continues the fable of healing by explaining what inhaled therapeutics are: “a sub-area of respiratory drug delivery that refers to treatments that are breathed in orally, which can provide a faster bioavailability/delivery of care, faster onset of effect and/or superior safety profile compared to standard of care.”  It also throws in one for “selfcare wellness”, which “includes botanical and other products, supplements, and over-the-counter solutions that enable consumers to take care of their physical, mental, and emotional well-being.”  Take PMI’s products, the healthy choice; join the well-being revolution and get fit whilst you are at it!

In 2023, Olczak seemed to go even further in telling the Financial Times that PMI could satisfy the ESG (environmental, social, and governance) requirements modern investors are taking note of.  The passport through the pearly gates and into an ESG designation is intended to come from such products as e-cigarettes which, while marketed as less toxic than the usual body polluters, nonetheless feeds the body with toxic chemicals.

Students of history will notice a pattern here: the use of cigarettes previously marketed as a sexy statement of choice and freedom; the doctor, equipped with cooked results and a smile of sweet approval at the next convert to nicotine’s church.

Little wonder that a number of those in the medical fraternity felt a sense of dread at PMI’s efforts.  Here was history repeating itself with hidden menace.  “We are deeply concerned that Philip Morris International will use the inhalation services technologies developed by Vectura to make their tobacco products more addictive,” declared the presidents of both the American Lung Association and the American Thoracic Society in a joint statement.

There are very good reasons to doubt the whole enterprise. When the head of one of the world’s tobacco behemoths actually encourages smoking bans and claims that “cigarettes belong in museums”, something rotten and rather smelly is afoot.  It might even be the smell of language burning.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.