The Promise of Innovation
Nicotine companies are helping tobacco users move from deadly combustible cigarettes to substantially reduced-risk products.
By Derek Yach
Over the past few decades, we have seen unprecedented progress across a wide range of technologies—digital and info tech, biotech, AgroSciences, material sciences and more. These are transforming many sectors considered “legacy,” “dirty” and simply out of fashion. The tobacco sector epitomizes many of the changes underway. The April 2022 edition of Tobacco Reporter highlights the diversity and speed of the change. From finding new uses for the tobacco plant, to ending exposure to toxic substances linked to combustion in cigarettes, to finding ways to design the emerging products to be biodegradable or recyclable, to limiting youth access—innovation pervades this classic, dirty legacy sector.
Evolution of THR Technologies
In an insightful article, Mike Huml outlines the role of hobbyists and smokers in seeking solutions to cutting toxic exposures (see “Major Milestones”). Driven by their passion, an entire new set of products with myriad components, a new language and, later, vape stores have arisen. Their role has been crucial in showing what is possible, what is desired and what can be achieved when advances in electronics, aerosolization, batteries and coils are combined into new consumer products.
Thousands of miles away from where the first large groups of users of these new products live in Shenzhen, China, new companies have taken up the opportunity and drawn on the Silicon Valley-like spirit that pervades the city to develop core components and completed products now at the heart of the e-cigarette and heated-tobacco revolutions. Until recently, companies like Shenzhen Smoore Technology, ALD and other vapor hardware suppliers were unknown in Europe and the United States; today, they are household names in the nicotine business. Their investments in research will increasingly become visible as future products emerge.
As with any successful innovation, the larger established tobacco companies have invested billions of dollars to create tobacco harm reduction (THR) products that appeal to smokers and pass the muster of regulators, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Their continued investment in research, patent filings and product launches mean that we now have over 100 million users of reduced-risk products—but that is less than 10 percent of the real target! More progress requires that state monopolies, who together account for one in two cigarettes sold globally, join the innovators.
Next Frontiers for Farmers and the Environment?
Farmers. Advances in our understanding of plant genomics initially helped to produce more environmentally resilient and productive tobacco plants and the ability to adjust nicotine levels. This has now given way to using the tobacco plant to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, a range of pharmaceuticals, wound-healing products and a range of domestic products for clothing, skin care and more! In his article “The Virtuous Weed,” Taco Tuinstra gives a hint of what is to come. These advances, however, will provide only a few tobacco farmers with alternative livelihoods. The speed of switching away from combustibles and high levels of quitting combined with the growth of demand for synthetic nicotine come together to make it more urgent to support the most vulnerable tobacco farmers’ transition to alternative livelihoods.
THR and the Environment. The growing concern about the impact of plastic pollution on the environment has led to the start of negotiations of a new United Nations resolution on greening plastics. The initiative will take two years to three years, will be legally binding and will push the pace of change in addressing alternatives to plastics like never before. Electronic cigarettes and heated-tobacco products will not escape scrutiny. They contain a wide range of nonbiodegradable components, including plastics, batteries and heavy metals. The rapid increase in disposable vapes and pods has not been accompanied by serious efforts to tackle this problem—until now!
ALD Group, a Shenzhen-based company, has been actively reviewing various studies and found from the Truth Initiative that 51 percent of e-cigarette users throw their empty pods or disposable devices in the regular trash, 43 percent do the same with their empty batteries, about 17 percent put both in the regular recycling bin, and about the same percentage throw them away or send them for recycling.
ALD Group’s response is to use biodegradable materials whenever possible and to develop recycling solutions within an integrated environmental management approach based on international standards, such as ISO 14001. The company appears to be adapting best practices from Nespresso on pod design, recycling and disposal as well as from leading beverage companies that have shifted almost exclusively to biodegradable products in the sale of their beverages.
ALD’s investments in research and development in biodegradability are beginning to pay off. This comes at a time when consumer and regulatory concerns about the environmental impact of risk-reducing product waste have increased.
Continued Progress on the Transformation Road Demands More Private-Public Partnerships
In a recent editorial, Nature highlighted the value of industry- academic collaboration in the context of Covid-19 vaccines. This edition shows how massive investments by nicotine companies—large and small—in research, technology development and consumer insights are delivering alternatives to deadly combustibles and displacing them faster than ever before.
THR advocate David Sweanor mentions several areas that require additional attention if private-public collaboration is to be achieved: mechanisms for researchers to access industry data and how to apportion intellectual property (see “From Coercion to Empowerment”) None of these are impossible. All require individual companies to find ways to work together on issues of public health and environmental benefit.
The Nature editorial calls for barriers to collaboration to be dismantled as much as possible. That lesson has yet to penetrate the walls of leading groups like the World Health Organization, academic and research bodies and scientific journals in relation to THR. Bans, prohibitions and ad hominem attacks of tobacco industry and related scientists chills dialogue, slows innovation and seriously hampers progress toward ending smoking and the death and disease it causes.
This edition shows that despite these barriers, substantial, unstoppable progress is underway—that progress could accelerate if engagement replaced these barriers. The beneficiaries would be millions of smokers seeking better solutions and longer, healthier lives.
Previously, Yach was the director of the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, and a World Health Organization cabinet director and executive director for noncommunicable diseases and mental health. He was deeply involved with the development of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.