No smokes without fire: Philip Morris' 'Heat not burn' tobacco sales under scrutiny
Multi-national tobacco giant Philip Morris is giving smokers private demonstrations of its "heat not burn" electronic devices, and insists it is not breaking the law.
Through an invitation-only website, the tobacco giant is marketing its Iqos smokeless electronic devices, which heat sticks of tobacco called Heets to release the nicotine that addicts crave without burning it.
But tobacco sales are tightly regulated, and Philip Morris' sales strategy has caught the attention of the Ministry of Health.
"The ministry is currently investigating the promotion and sale of the product," said the ministry's chief legal officer Phil Knipe.
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The ministry's website says "heat not burn" products are considered tobacco products for oral use under the Smoke-free Environments Act 1990.
The Act says: "No person shall import for sale, sell, pack, or distribute any tobacco product labelled or otherwise described as suitable for chewing, or for any other oral use (other than smoking)."
Knipe said: "The ministry's view is that the electronic device (Iqos) in itself is not an illegal product but the heat sticks (Heets) inserted into the device are tobacco products and therefore their sale must be made in accordance with the Smoke-free Environments Act."
But Philip Morris was confident it had the law on its side.
"The sale of our heated tobacco product Heets complies with all relevant sections of the Smoke-Free Environments Act," Jason Erickson, general manager for Philip Morris New Zealand said.
"The section of the law referenced by the ministry was put in place in the 1990s to address chewing tobacco and has nothing to do with heated tobacco or e-cigarettes.
"We are currently making our Iqos device and Heets available to registered adult smokers on a website. If requested, we will provide a demonstration on how to use the Iqos device, which as the Ministry of Health has acknowledged, is a consumer electronics product."
People can only enter the Iqos website if they are given an "invitation code" by Philip Morris, which requires people to state they are an adult smoker.
Sources in the e-cigarette community say Philip Morris had initially hoped to create a "pop-up" shop in Auckland to market the devices, but had opted instead for the lower-profile private demonstrations.
There has been a rush to develop devices that deliver nicotine without burning tobacco.
The chief rival to Philip Morris' "heat not burn" devices are e-cigarettes that deliver nicotine-laced vapour.
These are now widely sold in New Zealand alongside of bottles of the nicotine e-liquids they use, despite the ministry's belief that: "E-cigarettes containing nicotine manufactured from tobacco are not legally able to be sold in New Zealand."
But, it said late last year: "Due to a lack of clarity on the legal position of e-cigarettes... the ministry has been unable to carry out enforcement actions against retailers."
Despite a developing body of evidence that smokeless nicotine delivery systems like e-cigarettes and 'heat not burn" devices are less harmful than cigarettes, New Zealand is not expected to decide whether to formally legalise them, or on how to regulate their sale, until next year.
"Many smokers in New Zealand are already using smoke-free products such as nicotine e-cigarettes and electronically heated tobacco because they represent a potentially less harmful alternative to smoking," Erickson said.
"There is no doubt in the public health community that products that do not burn tobacco are significantly safer alternatives to cigarettes."
But: "Philip Morris and the Ministry are engaged in discussions in relation to the application of the Smoke -Free Environments Act to our heated tobacco product."