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Marketing IQOS in a dark market
  1. Annalise Mathers,
  2. Robert Schwartz,
  3. Shawn O’Connor,
  4. Michael Fung,
  5. Lori Diemert
  1. Ontario Tobacco Research Unit, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  1. Correspondence to Dr Robert Schwartz, Ontario Tobacco Research Unit, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON M5T 3M7, Canada; robert.schwartz{at}utoronto.ca

Abstract

Introduction Phillip Morris International (PMI) is pushing hard to promote IQOS heat-not-burn cigarettes in Ontario, Canada. Canada regulates IQOS as a tobacco product so that the robust tobacco marketing ban creates challenges to its promotion.

Methods We collected data on IQOS promotion in 49 retail outlets, and through interviews with clerks and observations outside an IQOS store.

Results The dominant marketing channel is the visible availability of IQOS in a large number of tobacco retail outlets—1029 across Ontario. Several stores display the price of ‘heated tobacco’ on one of three price signs which are permitted despite Ontario’s total display ban. IQOS boutique stores are the locus of aggressive promotion including exchanging a pack of cigarettes or lighter for an IQOS device, launch parties, ‘meet and greet’ lunches and after-hour events. Outside the store, promotion includes a prominent IQOS sign, a sandwich board sign reading ‘Building a Smoke-Free Future’ and sales representatives regularly smoking IQOS. Membership services: Upon acquiring an IQOS device one can register to access the IQOS website store5 and receive customer support services, a map of retail locations and a product catalogue. Members receive regular email invitations to complete surveys with opportunities to win prizes.

Conclusions These promotion activities have undoubtedly made substantial numbers of Ontarians aware of IQOS. Yet, the government has not provided guidance as to absolute and relative potential harms. Our observations of tactics to promote a new tobacco product in a dark market may inform government regulatory policy and non-governmental organisation efforts wherever heat-not-burn products are introduced.

  • tobacco industry
  • public policy
  • non-cigarette tobacco products
  • advertising and promotion
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Background

Phillip Morris International (PMI) is pushing hard to promote its IQOS heat-not-burn cigarettes in Ontario, Canada, since its launch in April 2017. In the background is PMI’s declared intention of moving to a smoke-free world by offering ‘less harmful alternatives to smoking’.1 Previous reports suggest that PMI is promoting IQOS in jurisdictions where they are regulated differently from combustible tobacco.2 Canada, however, regulates IQOS as a tobacco product and Canada’s robust bans on tobacco marketing create challenges to promoting a new tobacco product.

Methods

As part of a larger study on marketing of e-cigarettes, we have collected data on how PMI—Rothmans, Benson & Hedges (RBH) in Canada—is promoting IQOS in Ontario’s dark market. In September 2017, we conducted observations in 15 convenience stores, 25 vape shops, 4 tobacconists and 5 head shops (retail outlets specialising in cannabis culture and consumption products), and interviewed 19 clerks across five Ontario cities. We also conducted observations outside the IQOS premier store in downtown Toronto on 10 occasions. As done in previous studies, we identified potential shops in each city using internet-based approaches.3 We entered the search terms ‘top [store type] [city]’ in Google and Yelp to select the top-rated hits for vape stores, tobacconists and head shops. Convenience stores were selected based on their proximity to the selected vape shops identified.

We conducted semistructured interviews with a representative sample of store types in each city. Interview participants included sales representatives, store managers or owners who were selected based on first contact. Participants who consented to be interviewed received a $25 honorarium. In total, we conducted 19 interviews; four interviews in Toronto, Hamilton, London and Sudbury, and three interviews in Ottawa.

Analysis of observation data was conducted in SAS V.9.44 using descriptive statistics by store type. Interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim. Thematic analysis was carried out using NVivo V.95 by the trained research assistants.

Results

We identify three main promotion channels: (1) retail outlets; (2) IQOS boutique stores; and (3) membership services

Retail outlets

Over an 8-month period, RBH has managed to place its products in 1029 outlets in Ontario (214 outlets within Greater Toronto Area) as of 9 November 2017, mainly chain convenience stores such as Mac’s/Circle K. These stores have largely stopped carrying e-cigarettes at the same time as starting to stock IQOS HEETS (HEATSTICKS), the cigarette-like component that is smoked in the IQOS device, but for the most part are not selling the device itself. To get around Ontario’s total display ban on tobacco products at point of sale, we have observed several stores displaying the price of ‘heated tobacco’ on one of three price signs, which are permitted in each store. In at least one store selling HEETS, clerks are providing interested customers with the business card of an IQOS representative who can arrange the purchase of the device. Most tobacconists interviewed told us that they had been approached by IQOS and many are happy to carry the products. Some convenience store interviewees indicated that that IQOS representatives had suggested that government was supportive of IQOS: ‘I wouldn’t say endorsing, yeah true but just in favour of more than smoking because it’s like, it’s just a tobacco stick, it’s got no chemicals in it that all the regular cigarettes have.’ Visible signs of the availability of IQOS in a large number of locations frequented by smokers appear to be the most prominent mode of promotion.

IQOS boutique store

RBH has been granted a tobacconist license for two branded IQOS stores, which have opened in busy downtown Toronto locations. Promotion at and around the IQOS store is aggressive, starting with an exchange offer of an IQOS device in exchange for a pack of cigarettes or lighter on 31 May, World No Tobacco Day.6 Neighbourhood businesses were invited to a launch party, as well as to ‘meet and greet’ lunches and after-hour events with sales representatives. One vendor noted, ‘I know they had like a launch party about a month ago where they had people out on the street and just kind of like being like oh if you’re smoking or it’s like do you smoke and they just kind of like pinpoint people on the street.’ Outside the store, promotion includes a prominent IQOS sign, a sandwich board sign on the sidewalk reading ‘Building a Smoke-Free Future’, and sales representatives can regularly be seen smoking IQOS in front of the store. The inside of the store has been designed to mimic an Apple store aesthetic ‘to give a light, refreshing, airy look and feel’7 with sales reps providing friendly individual attention to customers.

Membership services

Anybody acquiring an IQOS device is invited to register as a customer in order to fully access the IQOS website store.8 In addition to information about using IQOS, the website offers customer support services, a map of retail locations where products are available and an online product catalogue. In November 2017, colourful caps and leather pouches became available to ‘personalize your IQOS your way’.8 Registered IQOS members receive weekly to monthly email invitations to complete surveys about IQOS use for which they are compensated with the opportunity to win prizes.

Discussion

These promotion activities have undoubtedly made substantial numbers of Ontarians aware of this new product. A purpose of restrictions on tobacco product marketing is to prevent tobacco companies from attracting people to use their products. Because Canada does not have premarket approval of new products, tobacco companies can sell them, but are restricted in promoting them. The problem is that the government is not then able to inform consumers about the safety and relative risks of these new products. The industry is exploiting lacunae in how Canada regulates the marketing of tobacco products. Its success in doing so demonstrates the need to tighten upregulation and also provides lessons for other jurisdictions. The government has yet to provide Ontarians with any guidance as to the absolute and relative potential harms. While no data are yet available on sales or use, searches for IQOS on Google9 10 have already surpassed Google searches for e-cigarettes in Ontario and Canada.

Our observations of industry tactics to promote a new tobacco product in a dark market may inform government regulatory policy and non-governmental organisation efforts wherever heat-not-burn products are introduced. To address challenges, governments should consider acting on two fronts: (1) tightening regulation so as to close remaining avenues for promotion, including: price signs for categories (types) of tobacco at point of sale; exchange offers for new devices and indirect promotional activity such as ‘meet and greet’ events and direct web-based marketing to customers; (2) requiring premarket approval of new tobacco products.

What this paper adds

  • Lacunae in tobacco marketing restrictions have allowed Phillip Morris International to have considerable success in marketing IQOS in Ontario, Canada.

  • In the absence of premarket approvals, the government was unable to educate the public about the risks of IQOS.

  • Regulatory regimens in other jurisdictions may learn from this experience.

References

View Abstract

Footnotes

  • Contributors All authors contributed to conceptualisation and interpretation of findings. AM drafted the original text together with RS. RS redrafted the revision with support from all other authors.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent Not required.

  • Ethics approval University of Toronto Research Ethics Board.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data sharing statement No additional data are available.

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