Chris Kirkham: Smoke and mirrors or just a lifestyle choice?

Cigarette-maker Philip Morris has broken its own policy in marketing its smoking alternative — the tobacco-heating IQOS — to people younger than 25, says Chris Kirkham

Chris Kirkham: Smoke and mirrors or just a lifestyle choice?

Cigarette-maker Philip Morris has broken its own policy in marketing its smoking alternative — the tobacco-heating IQOS — to people younger than 25, says Chris Kirkham

AT Germany’s Bambi Awards for the media industry, in November, celebrities posed for red-carpet photos against a backdrop of established luxury brands.

Alongside the likes of Mercedes and Swiss watchmaker Chopard was a newer name: IQOS, a ‘reduced risk’, heated-tobacco device sold by cigarette-maker Philip Morris International.

Across Europe, Asia, and South America, the tobacco firm has affixed the IQOS brand to music festivals and art exhibits. The company also markets through IQOS lounges at mountainside resorts in the Pyrenees and in fashionable neighbourhoods of Rome.

Throughout Europe, the firm has partnered with ‘IQOS friendly’ bars and restaurants that are closed to cigarettes but open to IQOS. This is Philip Morris’s ‘normalisation’ strategy to scrub its image as a purveyor of cancer-causing cigarettes and present its new smoking alternatives as youthful, upscale lifestyle products, according to a ten-month study by tobacco researchers at Stanford University.

The marketing strategy mimics that of tobacco companies of the mid-20th century, who started associating cigarettes with Hollywood and high society.

“Philip Morris, as a company name, is somewhat of a pariah,” said Robert Jackler, a professor who led the study and heads Stanford’s Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising.

“IQOS is an attempt to sanitise their product line.”

The study was spurred by a May 2019 Reuters investigation that found Philip Morris had used online personalities, including a 21-year-old woman in Russia, to promote IQOS. Philip Morris’s internal marketing standards prohibit it from using youth-oriented celebrities or “models who are, or appear to be, under the age of 25”.

That investigation prompted the company to acknowledge it had violated its own policy and to suspend its use of social media influencers.

But the Stanford study found that IQOS marketing continues to stray from Philip Morris’s corporate standards on youth-oriented marketing.

“Its use of youth-oriented social media channels, trendy pop music festivals, and celebrity influencers is mis-aligned with their commitment to exclusive ‘adult smoker’ targeting,” the Stanford report concluded.

Philip Morris said it did not have access to the full report, but did say, “we doubt that there is anything PMI could say or do that Dr Jackler, and others who criticise our scientific commitment and smoke-free vision, would ever find satisfactory”.

The IQOS device is central to the firm’s efforts to overhaul its image, through such initiatives as its ‘unsmoke’ campaign, which promotes ‘smoke-free’ alternatives to cigarettes.

The device heats up, but does not burn, packages of ground-up tobacco, which resemble small cigarettes, to create a nicotine-filled aerosol that is similar to that produced by e-cigarettes, which heat flavoured liquid nicotine.

At this year’s Davos World Economic Forum, in Switzerland — a gathering of some of the world’s richest people — Philip Morris set up an ‘Unsmoke your mind’ lounge, where panellists argued against regulations that prevent ‘truth in marketing’ by tobacco firms promoting smoking alternatives.

IQOS is sold in 50 countries, including the US, through a partnership with US Marlboro maker, Altria Group. The two companies pledged to regulators that they would market the device only to adult smokers. But in other markets across the world, the Stanford study said, Philip Morris uses ‘coaches’ and ‘ambassadors’ to market IQOS.

In Romania and Russia, employment agencies recruit women as young as 19 to market IQOS. Instagram postings for Be Like Me, a Romanian marketing agency, show young women in malls posing with the device.

The Instagram account for RBT Group, a staffing agency in Russia that markets IQOS, shows photos of attractive young women in front of IQOS signs.

Other Instagram accounts with the IQOS name, including one called iqostyle.arm, in Armenia, show young women posing with the IQOS in professional-quality photographs. One photo on that account from last July — two months after Philip Morris said it had suspended all influencer marketing — showed Nika Shuvalova, a 22-year-old Ukrainian model, posing in a swimsuit on a boat with an IQOS.

The stakes for Philip Morris are huge: The company invested $6bn in developing ‘smoke-free’ products, such as IQOS, in hopes of staving off declining global cigarette sales. In 2018, CEO, Andre Calantzopoulos, told shareholders that the company hoped to receive 40% of its revenue — nearly $20bn — from ‘reduced risk’ products by 2025. Philip Morris documents underscore the importance of its larger strategy: “Make ‘normalisation’ a PMI priority and imbed this mindset into the organisation,” read an internal memo from 2014. The document also cited “the threats posed by PMI/industry de-normalisation” — such as lobbying bans and exclusions from international treaties and trade agreements — “and the need to reverse this trend to drive future growth”.

The Stanford researchers pointed to company efforts to associate IQOS with fashion, art, and popular culture in a way that cigarette brands, such as Marlboro, have been unable to do, given changing social attitudes and prohibitive laws. IQOS has been present at Germany’s Bambi Awards — which honour stars in TV and film — as well as that country’s Playboy Playmate of the Year Awards.

Philip Morris worked with British sculptor Alex Chinneck on a dramatic installation at the 2019 Milan Design Week. The company also worked with industrial designer Karim Rashid to create an installation at the previous year’s Milan Design Week. The company has also sought to distinguish IQOS from smoking, through partnerships with restaurants, bars, and salons, where cigarettes are banned but the IQOS device is allowed.

The Stanford researchers found evidence of hundreds of ‘IQOS friendly’ establishments in the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Romania, and Japan. The Stanford researchers say such policies undermine public smoking laws and encourage dual use of cigarettes and alternative devices. Many users will continue smoking outdoors, but turn to e-cigarettes or IQOS indoors. Such switching can “deepen nicotine addiction and make cessation less probable,” the Stanford report said.

The brand also had a presence at a Tel Aviv University student music festival last year, and at a launch party for IQOS in Albania, last year, a performer with an IQOS did an interpretive dance on stage. “They’re trying very hard to resurrect the glory era of smoking, where it was glamorous and sophisticated and stylish,” Jackler said.

“It’s about associating it with all the good things in life.”

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