[THE INVESTOR] The Korean government plans to enforce heat-not-burn cigarettes like Philip Morris’ popular IQOS sticks to carry a risk warning from December, reigniting disputes over the health hazards of tobacco alternatives here.
Tobacco companies immediately resisted the unprecedented decision -- the first of its kind around the world.
Korea plans to replace the current needle image (left) with a picture of cancer-ridden organs as a warning claim for HNB cigaretttes.
The Health Ministry said on May 14 graphic warnings have to be put on all cigarettes packets, including HNB products, from Dec. 23 regardless of the controversy about its effectiveness.
“Even Philip Morris’ own investigations show that harmful elements do exist in HNB cigarettes, so we are mandating a warning image on their products,” a ministry official told The Investor on condition of anonymity.
As of now, HNB products carry a needle image to warn of risks but it will be replaced with a picture of cancer-ridden organs. Before it is enforced, the ministry said it will hold public hearings to gauge different views till June 4.
If implemented, Korea will be the first country to enforce this on HNB cigarettes that the producers say contain lower levels of toxic chemicals than regular cigarettes. It has not yet been verified whether it translates into lower rates of tobacco-related diseases.
“Korea is the first country to do so. The situation is different from other countries. The decision was made based on a surging number of HNB cigarette smokers here,” the official added.
In Korea, the market share of HNB products has more than doubled to 8.6 percent from 3 percent since the first product -- Philips Morris’ IQOS -- hit the market in June last year.
“The government’s decision is not based on scientific grounds. We express serious concerns,” the Korea Tobacco Association, a lobby group consisting of KT&G, the leading Korean tobacco maker, along with international tobacco makers like Philip Morris and British American Tobacco, said in a statement.
Philips Morris which has seen a surge in sales largely due to the popular IQOS device and HEETS sticks here also expressed its concerns.
“We worry the warning images could discourage smokers from turning to HNB cigarettes that are less harmful to health,” a Philip Morris spokesperson said.
KT&G which has its own brand HB Lil, was a bit cautious about the government’s decision, saying the tobacco association’s statement does not exactly reflect its own stance. A company official declined to comment due to sensitivity of the issue.
Industry watchers say related disputes could continue for some time because Korea’s drug safety agency has not yet concluded its research on the harmfulness of HNB cigarettes. The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety started research in July last year but the results are being delayed possibly due to mixed results from around the world.
Early this year, the US Food and Drug Administration concluded that HNB cigarettes reduce exposure to harmful or potential harmful chemicals but the agency has not yet announced its findings on whether they actually reduce the risk of tobacco-related disease. The World Health Organization has said all forms of tobacco, including HNB products, use harmful ingredients and they should be subject to regulatory surveillance.
By Song Seung-hyun (email@example.com