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电子烟行业遭受重创,留下的市场空白该如何填补?

Sy Mukherjee 2019年10月27日

健康顾虑和严格审查可能让电子烟行业受到重挫。无论接下来会出现什么样的产品,对消费者的健康会更有利吗?

插图:SEAN FREEMAN

霍恩·里克的父亲烟瘾很大,两千零几年时诊断出了肺癌。霍恩住在中国沈阳,经过培训成为一名药剂师,同样也有烟瘾。自身状况,加上父亲不容乐观的消息促使霍恩发明了如今大多数电子烟的前身产品。

霍恩相信,将尼古丁混合在水蒸气中“雾化”,而不是烟草散发的烟雾进入人体,可能有助于烟民在继续抽烟的同时避免自己的生命面临焦油和有害化学物质带来的风险。霍恩的产品于2003年问世。此后不久他的父亲就去世了。但在短短几年时间里,电子烟就发展到了全世界,人们相信电子烟比传统香烟安全,令其得以迅速普及。

16年后,仅美国的电子烟和蒸汽型电子烟产品就已经成为一门价值90亿美元的生意。但对其安全性的信任已经变成了怀疑,相关厂商也遭到了来自于方方面面的“攻击”。首先是出现了此类产品的营销丑闻,包括有人指责电子烟制造商向未成年人推荐这些产品。随后出现的问题则严重得多,最近主要在美国爆发的类似流感和肺炎的神秘流行性疾病看来和电子烟有关。

从今年夏初开始,美国已经出现近1300名这样的病患(截至发稿时,已经有29人确认死亡)。患者中既有已经退休的老烟枪,也有还不到投票年龄的青少年。10月8日,纽约州州长安德鲁·库默宣布,纽约市布朗克斯区的一位17岁居民成为死于这种疾病的最年轻的美国人。

虽然近期出现的许多重病号都曾经使用非法的大麻或尼古丁烟弹,但危机还是笼罩了整个电子烟行业。特朗普政府最近提议全面封禁调味型烟弹;几十位州检察官以营销和消费者安全顾虑为由对电子烟厂商提起诉讼;中国和印度等巨大市场的监管部门也开始打击电子烟。

对不太操心的观察者来说,电子烟行业陷入困境对老牌烟草巨头来说似乎是件好事。但在很大程度上,电子烟行业就是那些烟草巨头。由于美国和其他市场的可燃香烟消费量稳步下滑,传统烟草公司开始抓紧机会来销售更吸引人的高科技产品。同时,这种产品身上套着一层光环,那就是即便不是绝对健康,至少也比一包好彩香烟对身体更好。

通过合作、投资和收购,这些烟草巨头已经把自己的产品延伸到了电子烟领域。销售Salem和Kool香烟的Imperial Brands推出了电子烟品牌Blu。英美烟草旗下的子公司雷诺兹烟草(香烟产品有Newport和Camel)则有Vuse电子烟。尼尔森的数据显示,Vuse是市场上第二受欢迎的电子烟产品,约占便利店电子烟销售额的13%。

接下来要说的是这个行业的王者,在电子烟领域里处于主导位置的旧金山初创公司Juul。作为非上市公司,Juul没有公布过销售数字。但富国银行的分析师伯尼·赫尔佐格估算,Juul在美国电子烟市场中的份额约为70%。这家公司还联手了美国最大的烟草企业。2018年12月,推出万宝路香烟的高特利集团斥资128亿美元收购了Juul 35%的股权,从而使Juul的估值达到380亿美元。

在监管、法律和公众领域连续受挫后,Juul的估值一泻千里。高特利的股价也从今年春天的高点下跌了25%以上,和9月1日相比滑落逾一成。两家公司一起遇到麻烦体现出整个无烟香烟行业面临的窘境,如果滚雪球般的争议促使消费者远离电子烟,那么谁以及什么产品可以为大型烟草公司填补这个空缺呢?

In the early 2000s, Hon Lik’s father, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Hon, a pharmacist by training living in Shenyang, China, had a tobacco dependency of his own. That fact, along with the sobering news, spurred him to invent the device that became the precursor of most of today’s e-cigarettes.

Hon believed that “aerosolizing” nicotine, infusing it in a vapor rather than delivering it through smoke from tobacco, could help addicts sustain their habit without risking their life from exposure to tar and toxic chemicals. Hon’s product made its debut in 2003. His father died shortly afterward, but within a few years, e-cigarettes proliferated worldwide—their rapid adoption driven by the belief that they were safer than traditional cigarettes.

Sixteen years later, e-cigarettes and “vaping” devices represent a $9 billion business in the U.S. alone. But belief in their safety has been replaced by doubt—and manufacturers are under attack from all sides. First came scandals around the devices’ marketing claims, including allegations that e-cig makers were pitching them to children. Then came something far more grave: a recent epidemic of mysterious flu- and pneumonia-like lung illnesses, predominantly in the U.S., that appear to be connected to vaping.

Since the beginning of summer, nearly 1,300 of these cases (and 29 confirmed deaths, as of press time) have emerged. The victims include lifelong smokers of retirement age and children too young to vote: On Oct. 8, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that a 17-year-old Bronx teen had become the youngest person nationally to die of such an ailment.

While many of the serious recent cases have been linked to the use of illicit marijuana or nicotine pods, the crisis has put the entire industry on its haunches. The Trump administration recently proposed a total ban on flavored e-cigarette pods; dozens of state attorneys general are suing e-cig manufacturers over marketing and consumer safety concerns; and regulators in huge markets like China and India are cracking down on vaping.

To a casual observer, the e-cigarette industry’s stumbles may seem like a lucky break for old-school Big Tobacco. But to a large extent, the e-cigarette industry is Big Tobacco. With combustible cigarette use in steady decline in the U.S. and other markets, traditional tobacco companies have latched on to the opportunity to sell sexier, high-tech products that carry an aura of being, if not objectively healthy, at least healthier than a pack of Lucky Strikes.

Through partnerships, investments, and acquisitions, the tobacco giants have fielded their own nicotine ponies in the vaping race. Imperial Brands, which sells Salem and Kool cigarettes, also sells the Blu e-cig brand. British American Tobacco subsidiary Reynolds American (Newport and Camel) sells Vuse, the second-most-popular e-cigarette on the market, according to Nielsen data, with about 13% of convenience store sales.

And then there’s the sector’s, well, crown Juul. That San Francisco startup dominates the e-cig industry. As a private company, it doesn’t report sales figures, but Wells Fargo analyst Bonnie Herzog estimates Juul accounts for around 70% of the U.S. vaping market. It’s also in business with the country’s biggest tobacco company. In December 2018, Altria—the firm that markets Marlboro—took a 35% stake for $12.8 billion, awarding Juul a $38 billion valuation.

That valuation has come crashing down in the wake of the regulatory, legal, and public blowback. Shares of Altria are down, too, by more than 25% from their spring peak and more than 10% since Sept. 1. And their conjoined woes point to the dilemma facing the whole smokeless-cigarette sector: If snowballing controversies chase customers away from vaping, who and what fill the void for Big Tobacco?

****

这些年来,霍恩·里克的雾化尼古丁技术经历了无数次的创新组合。最早出现的实际上是一次性圆筒装产品,非常接近传统香烟;随后出现了像钢笔一样的电子烟,配备可充电电池;最后问世的电子烟像U盘,而且Juul已经让它们流行开来。这种电子烟可以改造,零部件可以更换或互换。正因为如此,Juul的大多数常规产品都可以使用黑市上的四氢大麻酚(THC)烟弹。

这些产品形式让电子烟的潜在价值变得难以捉摸。投资银行Piper Jaffray的分析师迈克尔·莱弗里对《财富》杂志表示:“这个市场很难衡量,原因就在于在线销售和销售渠道未纳入统计范围等因素,包括电子烟商店。”富国银行的赫尔佐格估算,今年美国的尼古丁电子烟销售额将达到90亿美元。大麻行业追踪机构BDS Analytics预计,今年大麻烟弹和笔式电子烟将实现销售额25亿美元。这还只是合法产品的规模,如果包括非法的THC市场,以上数字有可能翻番。

可以确定的是,这个市场正在快速增长。美国疾病控制与预防中心的数据显示,2012-2016年(有数据可循的最近时间段)电子烟平均月销售额增幅为132%,2016年达到每10万人1547件。该中心称,截至2017年年底,仅Juul一家公司每个月就可以售出320万件电子烟产品。

Juul的高歌猛进不光吸引了高特利的投资,它还有助于推动高特利和菲利普-莫里斯国际公司(PMI)开启合并谈判——高特利在2008年剥离了菲利普-莫里斯。随着电子烟引发的争议不断升级,双方的谈判分崩离析。Juul似乎处于收缩状态。该公司向《财富》杂志发出声明称,它致力于“负责任地领导”和对“青少年电子烟消费量处于不可接受水平”的现象予以打击。但仍然在所有烟草产品上合作的高特利和菲利普-莫里斯可能怀揣一件秘密武器,那就是所谓的“加热但不燃烧”技术。如果电子烟失去了立足之地,这项技术就有可能撑起烟草行业。

Hon Lik’s aerosolized-nicotine technology has taken on countless new permutations over the years. The earliest products were, essentially, disposable cylinders that closely resembled conventional cigarettes; then came devices that resembled pens, armed with rechargeable batteries; finally came the USB-drive-like products that Juul has made ubiquitous. These devices are modifiable, with parts that can be replaced and interchanged. That’s why Juul’s most common device can also be used to vape black-market THC cartridges.

Those permutations make the size of the opportunity hard to pin down. “This market is hard to measure because of things like online sales, sales through unmeasured channels, including vape shops,” Piper Jaffray analyst Michael Lavery tells Fortune. Wells Fargo’s Herzog estimates that nicotine e-cigarettes will reach $9 billion in U.S. sales this year. Marijuana vaping cartridges and pens are expected to ring in $2.5 billion in 2019 sales, according to cannabis tracking firm BDS Analytics. And that’s just the legal ones; taking the illicit THC market into account could double the figure.

What’s certain is that the market is growing fast. Between 2012 and 2016 (the most recent figures available), average monthly e-cigarette sales spiked 132%, growing to 1,547 units per 100,000 people in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control. By the end of 2017, Juul alone was selling 3.2 million devices each month, says the CDC.

The Juul juggernaut not only attracted Altria’s investment but also helped prompt merger talks between Altria and Philip Morris International (PMI)—the company that Altria spun off in 2008. Those talks fell apart as the e-cig controversy swelled. Juul seems to be in retrenchment mode; it directed Fortune to a statement in which it committed to “responsible leadership” and combating “unacceptable levels of youth usage.” But Altria and PMI, which still collaborate on all kinds of tobacco products, may have a secret weapon tucked into their vests. It’s called “heat not burn” technology—and it could buoy the industry if vaping becomes untenable.

****

从事无烟烟草产品经销的亚切克·奥尔科扎克把自己的工作说的像个大麻烦。

奥尔科扎克是菲利普-莫里斯的首席运营官,他正在推广的产品是“加热但不燃烧”的IQOS(发音为“EYE-cose”),后者释放的尼古丁包含在精细研磨的烟草制成的小球中(菲利普-莫里斯把它的IQOS产品称为HeatStick)。使用者将烟杆插入充电盒后,烟杆里内置的刀尖状发热片就会把烟草加热到足以释放出含尼古丁蒸汽的温度,但不至于把烟草点着。就像蒸汽型电子烟一样,IQOS不会把烟草点着,因此既没有烟灰,也没有烟雾。

这款IQOS产品看起来就如同是苹果公司的首席设计师乔尼·艾维设计的圆珠笔一样,今年10月初首次在美国亮相,地点是在亚特兰大市一家高档购物中心的极简主义IQOS品牌店里。但正如奥尔科扎克描述的那样,买到这款产品可不是什么轻而易举的事情。他说,大家可以在网上订购,但必须到实体店提货。购买者需要证明自己至少21岁了,而且是打算戒烟的主动抽烟者。你可以撒谎,但菲利普-莫里斯表示他们会询问购买者的烟龄、抽烟频率以及抽哪个牌子的香烟,从而验明正身。

奥尔科扎克出生在波兰,他说:“我大概22岁时开始抽烟。我的目标用户是成年烟民。”他还打算构建起无烟电子烟消费者群体。菲利普-莫里斯希望到2025年无烟型产品的净收入贡献率可以达到40%左右,远高于去年的13.8%。而由成年人负责任地使用是推广IQOS的关键——其概念是通过不太容易滥用或超重度使用的产品形式让抽烟者获取尼古丁,以免重蹈蒸汽型电子烟的覆辙。

在美国以外,IQOS已经找到了受众。该产品于2014年年底在美国以外上市。菲利普-莫里斯称,截至去年,其用户已经达到960万,分布在44个国家和地区,其中最大的市场是俄罗斯和日本。美国食品与药品管理局(FDA)于去年春天批准在美国销售IQOS,后者在美国的营销和经销由高特利负责。和具有糖果口味的蒸汽型电子烟不同,监管部门要求IQOS的味道只能像香烟,因此该产品的口味只有普通香烟型以及两种薄荷醇香型(美国以外的部分市场销售薄荷味IQOS)。奥尔科扎克坚持说大多数用户都是成年人:“年龄不够的人使用IQOS的情况只占0.2%,或者0.3%。”

IQOS每次使用后都需要充电几分钟,这让用户体验不太像抽烟,反而更像是煮开水泡茶。不过,虽然操作似乎很复杂,但IQOS已经有了拥趸。Piper Jaffray的分析师莱弗里说:“在美国以外,60%-80%的抽烟时间已经从传统香烟变为使用IQOS。”菲利普-莫里斯表示,今年第一财务季度,该公司的HeatStick发货量为115亿支。该公司没有披露收入结构,但实际情况可能证明HeatStick是一款高利润产品,而且尚未被公众的电子烟健康顾虑所波及。

华尔街当然看到了机会。富国银行在最近发布的分析师报告中指出,电子烟市场的收缩应该促使高特利大举增加对加热但不燃烧产品销售的投入。

目前菲利普-莫里斯和高特利尚未具体说明其增长目标。高特利将亚特兰大称为试点市场,包含HeatStick的IQOS产品由临时销售团队负责推广,范围是500家“零售合作门店”,而且主要是便利店。入门级套装包括一个IQOS和200支烟弹,售价80美元。奥尔科扎克在健康问题上很小心,并没有过多地作出承诺。他说:“我可没有说IQOS是零风险产品,我的意思是它比目前市面上的产品好。”实际上,法律甚至不允许菲利普-莫里斯在美国使用这样的说法。是否开这个绿灯则要取决于美国食品与药品管理局。

For a man whose job is selling smokeless tobacco devices, Jacek Olczak makes buying smokeless tobacco devices sound like a huge hassle.

Olczak is the chief operating officer of PMI, and the device he’s pitching is the IQOS (“EYE-cose”), a heat-not-burn device. Such devices deliver nicotine using a pellet made up of finely ground and reconstituted tobacco. (PMI calls its version a HeatStick.) After users place a stick into the stylus device, a small internal blade heats the tobacco to a temperature hot enough to release a nicotine-laden vapor but not hot enough to set the tobacco on fire. As with a vaping device, there’s no combustion, so there’s no ash or smoke.

The IQOS, which looks like what would result if Apple’s Jony Ive designed a ballpoint pen, made its U.S. debut in early October at a minimalist IQOS-branded store in an upscale mall in Atlanta. But obtaining one, as Olczak describes it, is no casual affair. You can order it online, Olczak says, but you have to pick it up at a store. You’ll have to prove you’re 21. You’ll also have to testify that you’re an active smoker trying to quit. You could lie about that, but PMI says customers will be asked about how long they’ve smoked, how often, and which brands they purchase—to test their bona fides.

“I started smoking when I was about 22,” says Olczak, a native of Poland. “I want to target adult smokers.” He also wants to build a smokeless customer base. PMI hopes to derive about 40% of net revenue from smoke-free products by 2025, up from 13.8% last year. And responsible adult use is key to the IQOS pitch: The idea is to serve up nicotine in a package that’s less prone to abuse, or to ultra-intensive use, than vaping devices have turned out to be.

Outside the U.S., the IQOS has found an audience. The device, made its debut at the end of 2014. As of last year, PMI says, there were 9.6 million users in 44 countries, with Russia and Japan among its biggest markets. The FDA cleared the device for sale in the U.S. last spring, and Altria is handling marketing and distribution in the U.S. Unlike vape rivals that have been available in candy-like flavors, the IQOS is regulated like a cigarette, and thus can sell no flavors other than regular tobacco and two menthol variants. (Mint is sold in some markets outside the U.S.) And Olczak insists most of its users are adults. “Underage use of IQOS is 0.2%, maybe 0.3%,” he says.

It can take several minutes to recharge an IQOS device between uses—which can make the smoking experience less like lighting a cigarette and more like boiling water for tea. But cumbersome as the process seems, it has its loyalists. “Outside the U.S., people switch from cigarettes to IQOS 60% to 70% to 80% of the time,” says Lavery, the Piper Jaffray analyst. PMI says it shipped 11.5 billion HeatSticks in its fiscal first quarter this year. PMI doesn’t break out revenue, but the product could prove to be a lucrative seller—one not yet tainted by the public-health concerns over e-cigarettes.

Wall Street certainly sees an opportunity. In a recent analyst note, Wells Fargo argued that the retrenchment in the e-cigarette market should incentivize Altria to aggressively double down on heat-not-burn sales.

For now, PMI and Altria aren’t being specific about their growth goals. Atlanta is the test market, Altria says, with devices and HeatSticks rolling out through pop-up sales teams and in 500 “retail trade partner stores,” mostly convenience stores. Smokers can buy a starter pack—an IQOS and a carton of 200 sticks—for $80. Olczak is careful not to overpromise on the health front. “I’m not saying IQOS is a zero-risk product,” he says. “What I’m saying is, it’s better than what’s available right now.” And even that claim, it turns out, isn’t one that PMI is legally allowed to make in the U.S. Whether it will someday do so is in the hands of the FDA.

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美国食品与药品管理局在电子烟领域的监督工作一直大起大落,既有监管方面的弥补,也有暧昧的司法操作。2009年,美国食品与药品管理局先是打算将电子烟作为医药设备进行监管,但生产厂家成功地阻止了这个计划。《家庭吸烟预防和烟草控制法》获得通过并在2009年6月由总统贝拉克·奥巴马签字生效,从而让美国食品与药品管理局首次获得监管烟草产品的权力。但由于花了几年时间和国会议员以及游说团体进行辩论,所有的新电子烟法规都被耽误了。奥巴马政府推出首批规定已经是2016年5月以后的事了,其中包括禁止向未成年人销售电子烟以及制造商必须披露产品成分。

更重要的是,这些新规让电子烟更接近全面监管,它们要求制造商证明其产品利大于弊,否则就不能在市场上销售。2017年,美国食品与药品管理局的新任局长斯科特·戈特利布——一位电子烟取代可燃香烟的倡导者决定暂缓出台这些规定,并将厂商提交所谓营销申请的时间推迟到了2022年8月。但医生群体、公共健康倡导团体以及反烟草组织已经就美国食品与药品管理局暂不颁布这些规定提起诉讼,理由是现在就需要更严格的监管,而不是将来。

今年7月,联邦法官裁定原告胜诉。电子烟厂商必须在2020年5月以前提交公共健康审核报告。随后,监管部门可以再用一年时间来判断其产品是否适于消费者使用。但电子烟行业已经时间紧迫,如果生产商无法证明其产品不会损害公众健康,它们的产品销售就可能受到更严格的控制,甚至被彻底封杀。

戈特利布于今年4月卸任,他的代表尚未就《财富》杂志的置评请求做出回应。美国食品与药品管理局则告诉《财富》杂志可以查看今年7月该局的公告,代理局长内德·夏普莱斯在其中表示:“美国食品与药品管理局已经准备加快对电子烟和其他新型烟草产品的审核。”

菲利普-莫里斯和高特利可能支持官方审核。它们一直想让美国食品与药品管理局确认IQOS等产品对人的危害绝对小于可燃香烟,因为这可能是个开展营销的机会。这项工作涉及名为“修正风险的烟草产品”程序,而目前还没有电子烟通过这项评定。但有些投资者认为IQOS可能符合要求。莱弗里说:“我们认为科学支持他们申请美国食品与药品管理局做出修正风险评价。”

The FDA’s oversight of e-cigarette products has been a roller coaster of regulatory catch-up and murky legal maneuvers. The agency first attempted to regulate them as drug devices, in 2009, but manufacturers successfully blocked that effort. The passage of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which President Barack Obama signed in June 2009, gave the FDA the power to regulate tobacco products for the first time, but years of wrangling among lawmakers and lobbyists delayed any new e-cig rules. It was May of 2016 before the Obama administration instituted the first regulations, including a ban on sales to minors and a requirement that manufacturers disclose ingredient lists.

More significant, those new rules pushed e-cigarettes closer to full regulation, requiring manufacturers to prove that their products did more good than harm in order to keep them on the market. In 2017, new FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, an advocate of e-cigarettes as an alternative to combustible ones, delayed those requirements, giving manufacturers until August 2022 to submit so-called marketing applications. But a cohort of doctors, public-health advocacy groups, and anti-tobacco organizations sued to block that extension, arguing that tighter oversight was needed now, not later.

This July, a federal judge ruled for the plaintiffs. Companies must now submit public-health reviews by May 2020. After that, regulators could take another year to determine if the devices are kosher for consumers, but the industry will face a ticking clock: If manufacturers can’t prove that their products don’t make the public any worse off, they could face more strict control of sales, or even an outright ban.

Representatives for Gottlieb, who stepped down this April, did not respond to Fortune’s requests for comment. The FDA directed Fortune to an agency statement from July wherein acting commissioner Ned Sharpless said, “FDA stands ready to accelerate the review of e-cigarettes and other new tobacco products.”

PMI and Altria may be rooting for a review. They’ve been trying to get the FDA to classify the IQOS and other products as definitively less harmful than combustible cigarettes—a potential marketing bonanza. This process involves something called the “Modified Risk Tobacco Product” protocol, and it’s a bar that current e-cigarettes haven’t cleared. But some investors think the IQOS could qualify. “We believe the science supports the application for a modified risk claim,” says Lavery.

****

尽管最近出现了争议,但今后几年蒸汽型电子烟继续留在市场上的可能性非常高,而且有可能和加热但不燃烧产品同时存在。如果目前的疾病流行最终只和非法THC及尼古丁产品挂钩,主流电子烟厂商就有可能躲过进一步的限制。适当改造其产品可能提高出现这种局面的几率。比如,制造商或许能在产品中采用新的模式,从而提高改变和交换使用烟弹的难度。

但一些批评人士指出,电子烟和加热但不燃烧产品的危险根源埋藏的较深。二者的一个共同点是它们都把丙二醇和蔬菜甘油作为其他成分的“保湿剂”。蒸汽烟弹和IQOS的烟杆都含有这些成分,所以使用者会不可避免地将其吸入体内。

食品中的二醇类物质和甘油被视为安全成本,但初步研究显示,吸入此类物质的情况与食用不同。贝勒医学院的研究人员在今年9月公布的一份研究报告探讨了电子烟蒸汽对老鼠的影响。该研究发现,将老鼠暴露在含有丙二醇和蔬菜甘油的蒸汽中会导致其肺部损伤,而且会造成肺部脂质(也就是脂肪)积累,从而有可能影响肺的功能。一些科学家怀疑,脂质积累在目前由蒸汽型电子烟引发的流行疾病中有一定的作用,只是还有其他许多诱因。如果进一步研究表明这些物质和肺部损失有更明确的联系,加热但不燃烧产品的处境就不妙了。加州大学旧金山分校的教授斯坦顿·格兰茨指出:“IQOS的二醇类物质含量远高于传统香烟。”

菲利普-莫里斯表声明称,IQOS“释放的有害物质的种类和水平要低得多”,而且不会像传统香烟那样释放任何碳烟颗粒物。该公司指出:“不存在零风险的烟草产品或者含尼古丁的产品。”

换句话说就是,新的无烟产品可能不会给人们带来什么好处,而且危害可能更大。这也许就是烟草巨头的胜利宣言,甚至是在目前的争议给它们带来考验的情况下。烟草行业早已经历过这样的考验。毕竟,可燃香烟对人的危害无可置疑,但想买烟的人仍然可以买到它,也许大家还没有注意到这一点。(财富中文网)

本文另一版本登载于《财富》杂志2019年11月刊,标题为《随烟而上》。

译者:Charlie

审校:夏林

Despite the recent controversies, there’s a strong possibility that vaping-style e-cigarettes will stay on the market for years—perhaps alongside heat-not-burn. If the current spate of illnesses is eventually tied exclusively to illicit THC and nicotine products, mainstream e-cig makers may escape further restrictions. Modest adaptations could increase their odds: For instance, manufacturers may be able to create new models that make it harder to modify and interchange pods.

But some critics say the fundamental hazards of both e-cigs and heat-not-burn products run deeper. One thing both systems share is the use of propylene glycol and vegetable glycerins as “humectants” that keep other ingredients moist. Both vape pods and the heat sticks in an IQOS contain these compounds, and users inevitably inhale them.

Glycols and glycerins are recognized as safe in food, but early research suggests that inhalation is a different story. One study by Baylor College of Medicine researchers, published in September, examined the impact of e-cigarette vapor in mice. It found that exposing mice to vapors that contained propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin led to lung damage and the buildup of certain lipids, or fats, in the lungs that could disrupt their function. Some scientists have speculated that lipid buildup is playing a role in the current vaping-illness epidemic, although there are many other factors in play. If further studies strengthen a link between these substances and lung damage, it won’t bode well for heat-not-burn. “IQOS has much, much higher levels of glycols than a regular cigarette,” says Stanton Glantz, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco.

In a statement, PMI says that the IQOS “emits significantly lower number and levels” of the harmful compounds and none of the ?carbon-based solid particles found in traditional cigarettes. “No tobacco- or nicotine-containing product is risk-free,” the company notes.

Put another way: The new smokeless cigarettes may not be good for you, but they could be worse. That may be Big Tobacco’s winning argument, even as today’s controversies test it. The industry has survived such tests before. After all, combustible cigarettes are undeniably bad for you—and in case you haven’t noticed, you can still buy them if you want them.?

A version of this article appears in the November 2019 issue of Fortune with the headline “Up in Smoke?”

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