FDA statement on IQOS may prevent ban on alternative smoking products in Hong Kong

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The authorisation of IQOS to be marketed as generating fewer harmful chemicals compared to cigarettes has huge implications on the smoking scene in Hong Kong. 

On 7 July, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officially authorised the marketing of the heat-not-burn smoking alternative IQOS as a modified risk tobacco product. This means that Philip Morris International (PMI), the manufacturing company, would be able to claim the product presents reduced exposure of harmful chemicals compared to cigarettes when marketing it in the USA.

“This marks the second set of products ever to be authorised as MRTPs and the first tobacco products to receive ‘exposure modification’ orders, which permits the marketing of a product as containing a reduced level of or presenting a reduced exposure to a substance or as being free of a substance when the issuance of the order is expected to benefit the health of the population,” the FDA states in its news release.

Tommaso Di Giovanni, VP Market Activation and Support at PMI, explains the FDA’s report on IQOS has huge implications as it confirms that IQOS is a better option to cigarettes.

“[The FDA’s report] is very comprehensive and extensive. Its conclusion is very positive because they state very clearly that IQOS and HEETS are substantially different from cigarettes and better than cigarettes,” Giovanni says.

He also notes that the report helps the public receive more accurate information about IQOS:

“Consumers in the US will be able to receive that information, which is in my view critical because today we have alternatives like IQOS which are obviously better choices than cigarettes, and those who otherwise would continue smoking deserve to have access to that information.”

IQOS from Philip Morris courtesy of Vaping360 / CC BY 2.0

In 2019 the Hong Kong government proposed a bill that would completely ban all alternative smoking products (ASPs), including IQOS. Brett Cooper, General Manager of Hong Kong & Macau at PMI, says in an academic panel on Financial Times that the solution to convince governments to be more flexible on regulating ASPs is to hold dialogue. 

“I think that regulators here can look at regulations overseas and try to understand them. See what other countries are doing and look to replicate that in Hong Kong. But I think it comes down to a dialogue. You’ve got to have collaboration. You’ve got to talk about it to really come up with a solution with everyone involved,” argues Mr Cooper.

The bill on banning ASPs in Hong Kong was scrapped due to the time constraints of the current Legislative Council and will have to be rebuilt from the ground up once the next session convenes. Kevin Tsui, Associate Professor in the Department of Economics at Clemson University, suggests that FDA’s statement on IQOS might cause the Hong Kong government to make changes to the bill.

“A big part of why the government was not able to finalise the legislative process is that many people suggest vaping products and heat-not-burn products should be regulated separately. Now that the FDA’s issued this statement on IQOS (which is a heat-not-burn product), the government might regulate these two products separately,” he states.

Prof. Tsui adds that he hopes the government can keep an eye on the international trends regarding the regulation of ASPs:

“The FDA, as a very credible and experienced authority on regulating uses of tobacco, does not randomly issue this statement on IQOS. They have a system that closely observes if a product like IQOS is suitable for sale to the public. I think the government could really take a look at this framework.”

Prof. Tsui adds that the bill on ASPs will not be reviewed in this term of the Legislative Council but it will be brought to the discussion table again in the next term after the election this September.

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