• June 15, 2024

Losing Steam

 Losing Steam

Photo: Ned Snowman

Photo: Ned Snowman

Heated-tobacco products continue to eat into the sales of combustible cigarettes in Japan, albeit at a slower pace than before.

By Stefanie Rossel

This year marks the 10th anniversary of IQOS’ debut in Japan. Within a decade, Philip Morris International’s heated-tobacco product (HTP) has changed the country’s tobacco market beyond recognition. HTPs accounted for 37.9 percent of all tobacco sales in Japan last year. In January 2023, HTP sales for the first time overtook cigarette sales in Tokyo, accounting for 50.4 percent of consumer takeoff, according to PMI figures presented at the CAGNY conference in February 2024.

Perhaps the only tobacco market to have experienced a similarly seismic shift among product categories is Sweden, where the popularity of snus has altered consumption patterns to such an extent that its smoking rate will likely fall below 5 percent at some point this year. In both countries, smoking rates declined not as a result of anti-tobacco policies but due to consumers spontaneously opting for safer alternatives when presented with such options.

Until the advent of the new category, Japan was long considered a smokers’ paradise, and it still is one of the world’s largest tobacco markets, with more than 17 million Japanese smoking regularly. Japan’s ministry of finance still owns 30 percent of Japan Tobacco, the successor to the country’s tobacco monopoly, thus benefiting from high tax revenues.

For decades, the industry was able to flourish in a relatively unrestricted market. Low prices and moderate regulations facilitated consumption, with smoking incidence peaking at close to 50 percent of the population in the 1960s. Smoking, mostly a male habit in Japan, started declining slowly after the introduction of a series of anti-smoking regulations. More measures took effect when Japan hosted the 2020 Olympic Games and faced external pressure to crack down on the habit. Extensive public smoking bans contributed to a drop in smoking prevalence from 28 percent in 2002 to 16.2 percent in 2022, according to the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. But while cigarette sales decreased at a leisurely annual rate of 1.8 percent between 2011 and 2015, they started dropping much faster after the arrival of HTPs.

Japan is an ideal place to study the impact of HTPs. The country prohibits the sale of nicotine-containing e-cigarettes, which are classified as pharmaceutical products and can be purchased only with a prescription in medically licensed shops whereas non-nicotine vape products are freely available. In addition, Japanese consumers are health-conscious, tech-savvy and receptive to new gadgets. Values such as discretion and politeness are deeply rooted in Japanese culture, meaning that smokers in the densely populated country are keen to avoid bothering others, for example, through secondhand smoke.

Heated-tobacco products continue to enjoy a tax advantage over combyustible cigarettes in Japan, but this may change in the future. (Photo: Taco Tuinstra)

A Mature Market

Ten years into the introduction of the category, however, fascination appears to have worn off a little, with HTP sales plateauing during the past few years. According to Euromonitor International, the retail value generated by HTPs in Japan fell from $11.14 billion in 2022 to an estimated $11.13 billion in 2023 and will reach $11.23 billion this year. Japan nevertheless remains by far the leading market of the category, representing almost a third of the expected global retail volume of $40.59 billion this year, well ahead of Italy, which now ranks second with an estimated HTP market value of $6.511 billion in 2024.

IQOS continues to dominate the Japanese HTP market with a share of 70.5 percent in 2023, according to PMI. A survey commissioned by Statista revealed that IQOS Iluma was the most popular HTP in Japan between July 2023 and August 2023, with more than 21.1 percent of respondents using the product. IQOS Iluma One was the second most popular heating product, with a share of 20.7 percent of respondents. It was followed by JT’s Ploom X with 19.4 percent and British American Tobacco’s Glo Hyper+ with 12.9 percent.

The maturity of Japan’s HTP market has sparked a fierce battle for market share among the leading manufacturers. Price competition is increasing, and consumers are experimenting with other brands and devices while manufacturers are subsidizing products and launching new models.

In October, BAT lowered the prices of six Lucky Strike consumable variants for its Glo Hyper device after it had already cut the prices of 19 of its Glo Hyper products by ¥40 ($0.25) to ¥50 on Aug. 1, 2023, in an attempt to boost its market share. A pack of 20 Lucky Strike heat sticks now retails at ¥400.

Tax Differential in Danger

Japan also saw a series of new HTP launches in the past year, all focusing on improved performance and enhanced flavor delivery. In July 2023, JT introduced With 2, an infused tobacco vapor device under its respective new brand With. The product features JT’s infused technology, which generates vapor while an atomized liquid passes through a capsule containing granulated tobacco, and has been available at convenience stores and tobacco stores in Japan since September.

According to the company, there is no delay in nicotine delivery, as tobacco vapor is generated the moment it’s inhaled, and there is almost no tobacco smoke with the product since tobacco leaves are not directly heated. Following the launch, JT discontinued its Ploom Tech, Ploom Tech+ and Ploom Tech+ With devices for infused tobacco capsules. The recommended retail price for the With 2 device is ¥1,980, including tax, while a pack of the respective tobacco capsules under the Mevius brand retails at ¥580.

In November 2023, JT started selling Ploom X Advanced in Japan. The device, which replaces the Ploom X model, comes with an upgraded heating system. Named “Power Heatflow,” this technology increases the maximum heating temperature from 295 degrees Celsius to 320 degrees Celsius to provide a richer flavor experience. Charging time is reduced from 110 minutes for the previous model to around 90 minutes. The device is sold at a suggested tax-included retail price of ¥1,980.

In January, BAT presented the most recent version of its Glo heating device, Glo Hyper Pro, in Japan. Charging takes about 90 minutes, allowing for use for 20 sessions. This compares to 210 minutes for Hyper X2, 120 minutes for Hyper Air and 135 minutes for IQOS Iluma, according to BAT. The Glo Hyper Pro also features a new screen displaying performance settings and information as well as a new “HeatBoost” technology for better taste. At ¥3,980, the device sells in the same price category as IQOS Iluma, which retails at ¥3,980 to ¥9,980, depending on the discount, but is more expensive than the now discontinued Ploom X, which could be purchased for as little as ¥980 after discount.

To mark the 10th anniversary of IQOS’ introduction in Nagoya, PMI in March 2024 chose Japan for the launch of its Iluma i-series, the next generation of Iluma devices, which comes with a series of new features, such as a touch-screen that allows users to view the relevant information easily, and a pause mode that enables users to stop and resume their use and thus reduce waste. The device is adaptive to use patterns, and the holder’s battery has a longer life span, according to PMI. Retail prices range between ¥3,980 for Iluma One i and ¥9,980 for the premium model, Iluma Prime i.

Intensive competition has caused IQOS devices to be significantly less expensive in Japan than in other markets.

As manufacturers fight for market share, they may lose another advantage. One factor that helped HTPs gain ground in Japan was their favorable taxation. When the products debuted in this market, they were taxed at between 10 percent and 70 percent of the combustible cigarette rates due to their small amount of tobacco.

Takes hikes between 2018 and 2022 raised those levels to between 70 percent and 90 percent. Seeking to boost its defense spending, the Japanese government in late 2022 proposed to gradually raise HTP taxes until they reach the level of cigarettes in 2027. According to The Mainichi newspaper, the government had not made a decision on the tax hikes by early 2024. If it decides to move forward, however, the measure will likely further decelerate the growth of Japan’s HTP market.