One Billion Smokers Deserve Pragmatism, Not Dogma.

Moira Gilchrist, head of Scientific and Public Communications at Philip Morris International, offers a scientific take on the smoke-free conversation.

Why would someone from the pharmaceutical industry want to join Philip Morris International?


R&D in the pharma industry is all about applying innovation and science in order to provide solutions to pressing health problems. Philip Morris International is all about applying technology and science to develop alternatives that are a better choice for smokers than continuing to smoke. I joined at the very beginning of the transformation journey because l saw how serious the company was about addressing the root cause of a major public-health problem in society.

But surely the best way to address the problem is just to stop selling cigarettes?


That wouldn’t address the fundamentals. The fundamental issue is that there are 1 billion men and women on the planet who are ready to buy cigarettes every day. If we unilaterally stop selling them, they’ll simply buy somebody else’s product, and that will have zero impact on public health. What we’re focused on is initiating a massive behavioral change. We are working to help ensure that 1 billion people stop wanting to buy cigarettes because either they quit or, if they don’t, they switch to a better product. This approach can have a meaningful impact on public health.

There’s a lot of opposition to innovation in the tobacco space. Why do you think that’s the case?


Many in public health believed that the existing strategies of preventing people from starting to smoke and encouraging cessation in those who have were sufficient to solve the problem. My question is, why can’t technology play a complementary role? In every other major sector, technology is seen as key in improving outcomes. Anyone denying the role of technology in harm reduction is unfortunately resisting progress and denying smokers the opportunity to make better choices for their health.

Some of these new smoke-free products contain tobacco and deliver nicotine. Those substances are the cause of the problem, so why should we expect things to be different this time around?


Science shows that the combustion of tobacco is what causes the production of the vast majority of harmful chemicals that cause smoking-related diseases. Eliminating combustion is a key step toward reducing the production of harmful chemicals. Take oil, for example: It doesn’t cause problems to the environment when it’s lying under the oceans and deserts. The problem comes when you burn it.

What evidence supports the idea that these products are better than continuing to smoke cigarettes?


For our heated tobacco products, which we sell in many countries but have not yet commercialized in the U.S., we’ve done numerous nonclinical studies and clinical studies in collaboration with contract research specialists. Indeed, extensive laboratory and clinical data are available supporting their potential for risk reduction compared with cigarettes.

What do you think of the criticism of your science?


When we fund the research, there always seems to be a question mark. But we are confident in the methods we’ve used and in the conclusions we’ve made. In fact, the majority of independent studies conducted on our product have achieved results that are in line with ours. Much of the criticism comes from individuals and organizations who are focused on defeating the tobacco industry, rather than on providing solutions that can improve the lives of smokers who would otherwise continue to smoke. We are dedicated to ensuring that our science is discussed accurately. Anything less is a disservice to science, to policymaking and, most importantly, to people who smoke.

So are you saying that when people reject your science they are wrong?


If they do so simply based on the fact that we, a tobacco company, funded it, then yes. Science can and should be used to improve lives and inform decisions. It shouldn’t be simply rejected because of who funded it. It should absolutely be scrutinized and reviewed, but not dismissed as irrelevant. This issue is too important to ignore – and these are promising products backed by high-quality scientific evidence.

How do you justify continuing to work with addictive products? As a former healthcare professional, don’t you think it’s unethical?


I’ve spent my entire career working within the reality of patients’ lives and choices. In an ideal world, people would not be addicted to anything. But here in the real world, there are more than 1 billion men and women across the planet who are getting their nicotine from the most harmful delivery mechanism: burning tobacco in cigarettes. I cannot stress enough that quitting tobacco and nicotine products altogether is the best thing a smoker can do for his or her health. However, we understand that many will not. These men and women deserve better alternatives, and this is what guides our approach and motivates me as a professional: To provide better choices for men and women who would otherwise continue to smoke.