The IQOS heat-not-burn brand remains one of the most popular products in the category.
By Norm Bour
For those who have been in the nicotine industry for more than a few years, the IQOS saga is an amazing story of the ups and downs and volatility of the vapor market. If there is a real-life example of a “killer app,” IQOS changed the direction of vaping and introduced the concept of “heat-not-burn.”
First launched in Italy and Japan in 2016, IQOS was initially shot down by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has been the regulatory agency’s tendency since it received the authority to regulate vaping products. Since the FDA started soliciting and accepting premarket tobacco product applications, a long and arduous approval process, it has approved just a handful of products and cost the industry hundreds of millions of dollars and countless hours of legal work and accounting.
IQOS didn’t find the process any easier.
Owned by Philip Morris International, which has billions of dollars to spend on new technologies and employs who knows how many well-connected lobbyists, none of that made a difference. Since the company has an international footprint, PMI could focus on greener pastures and jurisdictions with less challenging regulations, so the company put its efforts on “testing” IQOS outside the U.S., where it was generally well received.
PMI built its first factory in Italy, and after the initial tests in Italy and Japan proved successful, it introduced IQOS in the U.K. Over the years, PMI has partnered with several international companies and marketed IQOS under a variety of names. However, the U.S. market proved to be more challenging.
In 2020, however, the FDA agreed that IQOS “significantly reduces exposure to harmful or potentially harmful chemicals,” and PMI launched the product in the U.S. that year. After launching IQOS in a handful of states and gaining a single-digit share of the overall market, PMI suddenly found the door slammed shut on IQOS by a copyright infringement claim by BAT, the U.K.-based parent company of Reynolds American Inc (RAI).
In September 2021, the International Trade Commission (ITC) upheld an initial determination from May 2021 that IQOS infringed on two RAI patents. The ITC barred PMI’s then-partner, Altria Group, from importing PMI’s IQOS 2.4, IQOS 3 and IQOS 3 Duo products into the U.S.
Following the ITC ruling, PMI stated, “At the present time, we do not expect to have access to IQOS devices or Marlboro HeatSticks in 2022. However, we remain focused on returning IQOS to the market as soon as possible. Our teams are actively working on reentry plans, and we expect to be ready to bring IQOS back to U.S. consumers when available.”
In order to get its tobacco-heating device back on U.S. store shelves, in early 2022 PMI announced its plans to manufacture IQOS in the United States. In October 2022, PMI agreed to pay Altria Group approximately $2.7 billion for the exclusive U.S. commercialization rights to the IQOS tobacco-heating system effective April 20, 2024.
“We remain committed to creating long-term value through our vision,” said Altria CEO Billy Gifford in a statement. “We believe that this agreement provides us with fair compensation and greater flexibility to allocate resources toward ‘moving beyond smoking.’”
In an interview with Bloomberg, PMI CEO Jacek Olczak said the company had planned to manufacture IQOS in the U.S. all along. “From the very beginning of us going to the FDA, we had in mind that IQOS would one day not only be sold in the U.S. but manufactured there, if you take into consideration the size of the market and the opportunity for IQOS,” he said. “It’s just happening sooner because of the ITC decision.”
In July 2020, the FDA authorized PMI and Altria to market IQOS with certain modified-exposure claims, giving the company a leg up over its rivals. PMI has not specified where it will be manufacturing IQOS but said it plans to sell IQOS in the U.S. again in the first half of 2023.
Meanwhile, overseas, specifically in Europe, IQOS stores are some of the most beautifully designed tobacco shops in the world. The products are available in 68 international markets, and PMI claims that “13.5 million adult smokers have made the switch from tobacco.”
PMI’s heated-tobacco products (HTPs) have been launched in key cities in Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Aruba, Austria, Bahrain, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Canary Islands, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Curacao, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Estonia, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Korea, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Latvia, Lithuania, Malaysia, the Maldives, Mexico, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Morocco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, North Macedonia, Norway, Palestine, the Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Reunion, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, Uzbekistan, and in some duty-free shops.
PMI has marketed several HTPs under its IQOS brand, and the most popular versions today use “blade heating technology,” a proprietary system for its HEETS, or HeatSticks. That overall methodology encompasses several versions of IQOS.
The latest generation of IQOS, ILUMA, was released in 2021 and uses induction to heat the tobacco instead of the blade technology and requires no cleaning. These devices use specific heated-tobacco units called Terea Smartcore Sticks.
In 2022, PMI launched Bonds by IQOS, along with its compatible tobacco sticks, Blends, in a pilot market in the Philippines. The company intends to further commercialize the product into 2023. Equipped with “bladeless” resistive external heating technology, Bond emits 95 percent less harmful chemicals compared to cigarettes, according to PMI.
“Bonds by IQOS represents another step forward in our ambition to replace cigarettes with innovative, science-based, smoke-free alternatives,” said Olczak. “We know that no single smoke-free product will appeal to all adult smokers. Providing a range of alternatives to continued smoking—with a variety of taste, technology, usage and price options—is imperative and helps us to address a range of preferences as diverse as adult smokers themselves—ultimately encouraging them to leave cigarettes behind.”
PMI’s ambition is that by 2025 at least 40 million PMI cigarette smokers who would otherwise continue to smoke will have switched to smoke-free products. Furthermore, the company’s aim is that more than half of its net revenues will come from smoke-free products by 2025.
In 2018, IQOS opened its first “boutique store” in one of the most fashionable, popular areas of Sofia, Bulgaria.
“I’ve been here since we opened, and it was a madhouse back then,” said the store manager, who asked to remain unnamed. “Many smokers, and even nonsmokers, had heard about the innovative smoking products and were looking for ways to quit smoking. Here in Bulgaria, we have the worse percentage of smokers in all of Europe, and even though it’s dropped, the numbers are between 30 [percent and] 40 percent depending upon age segmentation.
“Even now, four years later, many tourists visiting this area are shocked to find a store like this. Most of them are current or past smokers and are used to seeing small, ugly tobacco shops, so seeing such a classy place as this excites them.”
In November 2002, PMI launched its IQOS Iluma Prime at Dubai Duty Free. The appearance of IQOS Iluma Prime in Dubai International Airport terminals 1 and 3 follows the initial market launch in Japan and Switzerland duty-free in 2021.
“The launch of the IQOS Iluma Prime, our most refined and advanced device yet, in Dubai Duty Free further demonstrates our constant commitment to delight our legal-age consumers in travel retail with our most premium and stylish product range,” PMI vice president of Duty Free Edvinas Katilius said during the Dubai opening.
The electronic nicotine-delivery systems road is a rocky one, and it is difficult to predict what innovation may be around the next corner. For IQOS, however, market growth is on the horizon.
Norm Bour is the founder of VapeMentors and works with vape businesses worldwide. He can be reached at norm@VapeMentors.com.