Claims that heated tobacco products reduce users’ exposure to toxins are likely to be misunderstood as meaning that they are less likely to cause cancer and other diseases than conventional cigarettes, according to a recent study led by a researcher at the School of Public are Health at Georgia State University.
The makers of Heated Tobacco Products (HTPs), also referred to as “heat-not-burn” devices, claim that they deliver a safer experience by heating tobacco to a temperature that creates a nicotine-bearing aerosol rather than smoke. Other studies have been mixed on whether HTPs are a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes.
HTPs have been sold in the U.S. under brand names such as Premier, Eclipse and Accord since the 1980s. Recently, Philip Morris International has had success overseas with sales of a product called IQOS. The company has petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to allow sales of IQOS in the U.S. with marketing that would present it as a less harmful alternative to cigarettes, prompting the researchers to review the company’s filing.
“Given the long history of the tobacco industry using reduced exposure claims to mislead consumers into believing that the products in question have reduced risk, most notably through the use of ‘light’ and ‘mild’ cigarette claims, it is important to evaluate to what extend the modified risk claims for the new HTP products are based on scientific evidence and whether reduced exposure claims are perceived by consumers as reduced risk claims,” the researchers wrote.
Researchers examined studies conducted by Philip Morris and submitted to the FDA that tested potential marketing messages about reduced exposure to toxins. They concluded that study participants were confused and often mistakenly concluded that the messaging meant that HTP are safer than regular cigarettes. Participants even concluded that HTP were lower in risk of nicotine addiction than cigarettes, even though no information about addiction risk was presented to them.
The results of the study are published in the journal Tobacco Control in the article “Light and mild redux: heated tobacco products’ reduced exposure claims are likely to be misunderstood as reduced risk claims.” The study’s lead author is Dr. Lucy Popova, an assistant professor of public health at Georgia State.
The paper noted that Philip Morris’ own report concluded that “all messages (both reduced risk and reduced exposure claims) were perceived by participants as statements about lower harm.”
The authors also noted that some Philip Morris data show that users of IQOS may be exposed to higher levels of some toxins than they would be by smoking conventional cigarettes.
“Without evidence of reduced risk, claims of lower exposure are inherently misleading because they will be interpreted as reduced risk claims even if they do not explicitly make reduced risk claims,” the authors concluded.
The study’s co-authors included researchers with the University of California, San Francisco.