You Can Do Only Two Things: Quit Now or Switch Now. But You Can’t Keep Smoking.

Miroslaw Zielinski, President of Science and Innovation at Philip Morris International, looks back at decades of transformation.

You’ve been at Philip Morris International for more than 25 years. Has it changed?

From the product perspective, the company is very different. But in its DNA, I don’t think it’s changed. It’s who we are that brought us to where we are today.

What’s the unchanging part of the culture?


In 1991, I quickly recognized how entrepreneurial this company was, how brave and ready to take on challenges. By 1997, we started trials of our first smoke-free product, the Accord. It was ahead of the curve from a technological point of view. The first time I talked to André Calantzopoulos about it, in 1999, he was still one of the regional presidents, and I was a managing director. He was saying, “We have to address the product issues.” Twenty years ago, he was absolutely convinced that we had to start a transformation from conventional products to products that provide a solution for the major challenge of cigarettes. And a major part of that challenge is the combustion.

And then?


What I witnessed from the early 2000s was the company asking itself the essential question: “If combustion is an issue, can we eliminate it?” Back then, technological solutions weren’t yet available, because we didn’t have miniaturized electronics. Today, we’re pleased to say that we did it. And our goal is to offer these smoke-free alternatives to all smokers who would otherwise continue to smoke.

When did you focus on a noncombustible product?


I started to be involved in this project eight years ago. I became the president of what is Science & Innovation in 2015. By then, we had test-marketed our heated tobacco product in Nagoya, as well as in Milan in 2014, and we were about to begin the national launch in Japan. After many years of preparation and research, we’ve now had three years of commercialization of our product.

So that was the main challenge – combustion?


We had another challenge. We had to define the consumer experience and help consumers understand that there was a journey out of combustion. The worst thing that could happen to us would be if people bought the product, tried two sticks and said, “Oh, I don’t like the taste,” or “It’s too complicated; I have to charge the device, and I don’t have to charge a cigarette.” Because then they would put it in a drawer and never come back to it.

How do you communicate the science to the average consumer?


So many people still think that the major issue related to cigarettes is nicotine. They believe that if they were burning organic matter that didn’t have nicotine, the product would be less risky. Consumers have little understanding of the problem created by combustion. We need to help them understand by ensuring that our consumer messaging is truthful and not misleading.

Not a simple process.


Despite all of our efforts around consumer messaging some may say, “Yes, but is it true? Who will make the effort to verify the findings?” My friends would tell me, “Give us a break, we want to keep smoking.” I kind of forced them to switch, and now that they have, they’re happier for it. But these are my personal friends: Who should do this for 1 billion people? It has to be institutionalized. These answers must be given by government. By regulators. By the scientific community. By academics.

That’s another process.


Can we talk about honest science? Can we look at harm reduction and reduction of harmful compounds in products in comparison with smoking cigarettes? I get emotional about this subject, because for me it’s time for regulators to step in and tell every smoker, “You can do only two things: Quit now or switch now. But you can’t continue smoking.” The subject is far more complex than assuming that telling consumers every tobacco product is risky is enough. Every tobacco product is risky. But not all tobacco products have the same risk profile. This is generally accepted by the scientific community. And understanding and showing these differences is what we want to accomplish with our science.

The problem, of course, is that “our science” is Philip Morris International’s science.

This is precisely why we’ve made sure to be so transparent in our research, and to invite scrutiny from the scientific community. But think about it: Who else but tobacco companies could come up with the solution to the product they offered to the market? Who is the most interested in ensuring that our smoke-free products are better alternatives to continued cigarette smoking? Join the conversation; help us transform the future.