What started as a shop on London’s Bond Street in 1847 selling cigarettes and tobacco has paved its way into becoming the leading international tobacco company it is now. Philip Morris International (PMI) has become a global benchmark in the tobacco industry, a large multinational with a start-up spirit which culminated into its success through hard work and vision, with an everlasting gaze into the future while riding the digital wave. Ultimately, what was known as a traditional tobacco company has become a technological as well as scientific multinational with its latest revolution: IQOS. This groundbreaking product is here to disrupt the smoking world and turn it into smoke-free. We sat down with Vassilis Gkatzelis, PMI’s Managing Director for Egypt and the Levant, to learn more about PMI’s transformation journey into a science and technology-driven company, and PMI’s collaboration with local start-ups.
As the world grows ever more health-conscious, Philip Morris International’s message to everyone is apparent: “If you don’t smoke, don’t start, if you do, quit, and if you don’t quit, change to a better alternative that science and technology now offer”.
Since 2008, PMI has been leading a transformation in the tobacco industry to create a smoke-free future and ultimately replace cigarettes with smoke-free products. Several objectives drive this innovation: providing a better alternative to adults who do not want to quit smoking, building a smoke-free society, and benefiting the company, the community at large, and its shareholders.
“As such, PMI aspires to be a game-changer in the Tobacco industry and have its future success built on smoke-free products that are a much better choice than cigarettes for the world’s 1.1 billion adult smokers”, says Gkatzelis.
In a world where nicotine consumption is a choice for many adults, PMI recognizes the compelling scientific evidence that demonstrates that not all forms of tobacco are equally harmful. It also concedes that IQOS contains tobacco but functions on vapor, providing adult consumers with the tobacco experience but with 95 percent less toxic chemicals. However, it does not necessarily equal a 95 percent reduction in risk as IQOS is not risk-free.
Gkatzelis draws attention to the fact that PMI strongly supports measures to deter initiation and encourage cessation. However, the path to a smoke-free future is not one that the company can walk alone. In pursuing its vision, PMI is keen to see the introduction of measures that drive large-scale switching as quickly as possible. He also adds: “PMI is confident that the right mix of government leadership and commercial initiative will dramatically accelerate efforts to reduce the health burden of smoking. In this, governments and public authorities have a significant role to play to provide clear information to consumers about this new category of products and to define the risk-proportionate regulatory frameworks”.
PMI is following a rigorous scientific assessment program based on long-adopted practices of the pharmaceutical industry and in line with the draft guidance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a Modified Risk Tobacco Product Application (MRTPA). Commenting on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s latest announcement, Gkatzelis says, “This is a historic milestone. The US FDA reviewed all available science and confirmed that IQOS is distinctly different from cigarettes because it has been demonstrated to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals. Now is the time to rapidly shift adult smokers away from cigarettes. Scientifically substantiated better alternatives like IQOS represent a public health opportunity. This decision is a result of our ongoing commitment to putting science and innovation at the forefront as we continue our journey towards a smoke-free future”.
The company’s efforts are proving successful, with 10.6 million adult smokers globally already have chosen to stop smoking and switch entirely to its tobacco heating system IQOS. In fact, PMI envisions that by 2025 at least 40 million legal-age smokers will have shifted to its smoke-free products. “We have launched IQOS in Lebanon in February 2020 and Jordan in May 2020, thus providing access to adult consumers in our operating cluster of markets”, states Gkatzelis.
Similar to the rest of the world, in Lebanon, the majority of adult smokers are aware of the harm of smoking, with many of them looking for smoke-free alternatives. Since the launch of IQOS in February 2020, PMI has seen its endeavor met with positivity and interest from Lebanese adult smokers.
When it comes to the Lebanese market, Gkatzelis mentions that the Lebanese people are known to be pioneers in pivoting toward digital technology. “The latest figures in Lebanon are up-and-coming, with more than 20,000 adult smokers who decided to switch to IQOS, a better alternative. As a matter of fact, Lebanon is one of the few markets where PMI offers an end-to-end digital consumer experience, thus serving the purpose of supporting adult smokers across their journey towards smoke-free products. To achieve our mission, we have been partnering up with local digital start-up companies in Lebanon”.
The outbreak of COVID-19 did not deter PMI from its focus on the safety and wellbeing of its employees, their families, and the communities in which it operates. PMI was one of the first corporations to implement remote work policy and take extra measures to reassure its employees. In addition, it has been committed to supporting the more comprehensive effort to fight the pandemic, with numerous initiatives globally. It has helped many organizations and vulnerable communities that were affected by the pandemic in Lebanon among other countries.
Furthermore, quickly adapting to the prevailing conditions, PMI has strived to ensure continuity of supply to its consumers and support commercial partners through this challenging situation. The team in Lebanon reacted quickly and efficiently to the “new normal” by implementing a digitalized end-to-end consumer journey. Such reaction was apparent by partnering with local digital start-ups such as the e-Commerce platform Toters to sell IQOS online and So7ati to communicate the science behind tobacco harm reduction to the public health community in Egypt & Levant.
“The entrepreneurial spirit of the team in Lebanon enabled PMI to adapt to the very challenging circumstances and leveraged innovative technologies to address the needs of its adult customers in real-time”, discloses Gkatzelis.
Despite the challenges it continually faces in countries of the region, the company has demonstrated the utmost flexibility and faith in a smoke-free journey. With entrepreneurship running in its veins, PMI has moved from a Business to Business (B2B) towards a Business to Consumer (B2C) commercialization model in order to offer its adult consumers a better, smoke-free future.
This article is brought to you by Philip Morris Lebanon