JACEK OLCZAK

Greece among the countries with world’s highest smoking rates

PMI CEO sees e-cigs and heat sticks as a ‘much better choice,’ explains company’s plan to branch out into wellness, healthcare

Greece among the countries with world’s highest smoking rates

Despite a ban on indoor smoking, Greece remains among the countries with the highest smoking rates in the world, although there has been a significant decrease compared to a few years ago, the chief executive of tobacco giant Philip Morris International, Jacek Olczak, tells Kathimerini in an interview.

Olczak says that the ideal for smokers, over 1 billion worldwide, would be to quit smoking altogether, but as the indications so far show that they will not, the most “pragmatic approach” is to use products that eliminate combustion, such as e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products.

He acknowledges that these products “are not risk-free and are addictive,” but says they are a “much better choice” compared to continued smoking and traditional cigarettes. Specifically for the heated tobacco product IQOS, used by 21 million people worldwide, and 360,000 in Greece, the average levels of harmful chemicals are reduced by up to 95%.

He also believes that, in addition to existing efforts to stop people from starting smoking and to help them quit, offering smoke-free alternatives to adults who choose to continue smoking can also have a positive impact on public health. In this context, he calls on the authorities, policymakers and public health groups to act accordingly.

Allow me to take advantage of this discussion with the CEO of a leading global player in the industry to ask a simple question: Why should nicotine consumption, in all its forms, continue?

The best thing smokers can do is quit smoking altogether, but the reality is that many don’t. There are estimated to be over 1 billion smokers today, and the World Health Organization (WHO) projected there will still be over 1 billion smokers in 2025. These people deserve a pragmatic approach and a sensible solution that moves them away from cigarettes, one of the most harmful forms of nicotine consumption. Today, this solution exists. The vast majority of harmful compounds found in cigarette smoke and associated with smoking-related diseases are generated by combustion. Products that eliminate combustion, such as e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products, are a much better alternative to continued smoking. Harnessing science and technological innovation – like e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products, which have the potential to reduce the harm caused by cigarette smoking – is the public health opportunity of this century. At Philip Morris International (PMI), we have focused on developing, scientifically substantiating, and responsibly commercializing smoke-free products that are less harmful than smoking, with the aim of completely replacing cigarettes as soon as possible.

Healthwise, how less damaging are the alternatives you are creating compared to cigarettes? Aren’t they still harmful?

The high levels of harmful compounds found in cigarette smoke and associated with smoking-related diseases are primarily generated by combustion. Products that eliminate combustion, such as e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products, significantly reduce the average levels of these harmful chemicals compared to cigarettes, up to 95% in the case of our heated tobacco product IQOS. These products are not risk-free and are addictive, but they are a much better choice compared to continued smoking.

Has the pandemic impacted the industry in general, and PMI in particular, and in what way?

If we have learned anything during this pandemic, I hope it is that science, innovation, and inclusion must be respected. This will require everyone – from policymakers to people on the street – to value solutions over outdated dogma. Then we can have a solid platform to build a better future for all, faster. Ignoring science and innovation will only hinder progress for a better society. Unlike with the climate crisis – where we’re still trying to understand and employ all of the science and tools required to move toward carbon neutrality – we already have what’s needed to go smoke-free today.

‘We still have a long way to go to convince people to put out that last cigarette, forever, everywhere’

How successful has the ban on smoking inside restaurants, bars and other public places been in Greece, and is there a correlation with an increase in IQOS use?

The enforcement of the anti-smoking law banning all nicotine products has gained wide acceptance in Greek society. Ashtrays have become obsolete in restaurants and bars, and now you can wine and dine smoke-free as a rule. However, we still have a long way to go to convince people to put out that last cigarette, forever, everywhere. We should therefore encourage progressive policies, such as the one adopted in Greece, that differentiate products that burn from products that do not and are a much better choice; and encourage those who would continue smoking to switch to these better alternatives. With the growth of IQOS consumers and its geographic presence, we are very pleased that so many Greek consumers are moving to this much better alternative and stopping smoking.

Still, the rate of cigarette smoking in Greece remains quite high. Where does Greece stand on a global comparative scale?

It is true that Greece is among the countries with the highest smoking rates. And that’s even after the indoor smoking ban was put into place. Having said that, however, it should be noted that – thanks in part to the indoor ban – the smoking rate has been almost halved from what it was a few years ago. In any case, the challenge remains for all of us to do our best to inform and educate every smoker to quit as soon as possible. And for those who choose not to do so, we must be sure they are able to make an informed decision to switch to better alternatives that science and technology can now offer.

What is the percentage of people turning from cigarettes to smoke-free alternatives, and how is the trend developing on a global scale and in Greece?

As of the end of 2021, we estimate there were 21.2 million total IQOS users, with 72% of the total – or 15.3 million IQOS users – having switched to IQOS and stopped smoking, with the balance in various stages of conversion. This is a much higher conversion rate than has been observed for other smoke-free products around the world. Since its launch in 2016, the number of adult smokers in Greece who have made informed choices by switching to IQOS and stopping smoking continues to rise. Today, there are more than 360,000 IQOS users in the country.

You talk about the goal of moving away from cigarettes. When do you foresee an end to all cigarette production and distribution?

As we advance toward our bold vision of a smoke-free future, we have set an ambitious goal: We aim for at least 40 million current adult smokers to have switched to our smoke-free products by 2025. PMI is also making tremendous progress to become a predominantly smoke-free business by 2025, meaning the portion of net revenues sourcing from reduced-risk products (RRPs), a milestone that we have already met in 10 markets. In Greece, 65% of total net revenues are from smoke-free alternatives. But we cannot do it alone. In bringing to life our vision of a smoke-free future, we are eager to see measures introduced that drive large-scale switching as quickly as possible. We are confident that the right mix of government leadership and commercial initiative will dramatically accelerate efforts to reduce smoking. We believe that with the right regulatory encouragement and support from civil society, cigarette sales can end within 10 to 15 years in many countries.

How are regulations and tax policies changing the landscape with respect to moving societies away from cigarette smoking?

Offering smoke-free alternatives to adult smokers who would otherwise continue to smoke can have a positive impact on public health. We believe that – as well as existing efforts to prevent smoking initiation and encourage cessation – this approach is the right one and should be championed by regulators, policymakers and public health groups. Regulations should continue to dissuade people from starting to smoke and encourage cessation. They should be risk-proportionate and follow a common-sense approach: The most harmful product, cigarettes, should be subject to the most restrictive regulation. In addition, regulation should also ensure that any commercially available smoke-free product meets specific quality and performance standards, and that robust scientific evidence demonstrates their reduced-risk profile.

Recently, you announced your plan to expand into wellness and healthcare areas. What do you mean when you claim you want to address “unmet patient and consumer needs”?

This is a natural evolution for PMI to further transform our business into a broader lifestyle, consumer wellness and healthcare company in the future. It is an evolution that will deliver not only on our continued commitment to achieve a smoke-free future, but also in developing and commercializing scientifically substantiated products and solutions that meet unmet consumer and patient needs. The market for wellness and healthcare products is large and growing. We have several focus areas in our pipeline. For consumer and over-the-counter wellness products, we have several initiatives looking at focus, sleep, energy, pain and calm. In healthcare, we believe there are significant unmet patient needs for fast and effective treatments in cardiovascular, such as myocardial infarction, and neurology, such as migraine, which can be served by innovative solutions. We have recently accelerated this part of our strategy with the acquisition of Vectura, a provider of innovative inhaled drug-delivery solutions, and Fertin, a leading developer and manufacturer of innovative pharmaceutical and well-being products based on oral and intra-oral delivery systems.