How Do Heat-Not-Burn Tobacco Products Compare to Vaping?

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By David

For several decades, researchers and scientists within the tobacco industry have attempted to develop a safer cigarette. That research led to a trickle of products that were released throughout the years and mostly languished briefly on the market before being cancelled. Research into safer cigarette products had mostly stalled until an unexpected and disruptive product – the e-cigarette – appeared and forced the tobacco industry’s hand. Today, heat-not-burn (HNB) products are the industry’s answer to vaping – but has that answer arrived too late? Reading this article, you’re going to learn how HNB systems like IQOS compare to vaping. You’re also going to learn a bit about the fascinating history of the tobacco industry’s attempts to develop a less harmful cigarette.

Creating a Safer Cigarette: Early Unsuccessful Attempts

The industry’s attempts to create reduced-harm cigarettes included Premier and Eclipse from R.J. Reynolds and Next and Accord from Philip Morris. Some of those brands were developed with significant budgets. The Premier brand, for example, had a development budget of around $800 billion ($1.75 billion in 2021, adjusted for inflation).

The fact was, though, that marketing a safer cigarette was an almost impossible task. During that time, the tobacco companies were embroiled in lawsuits over the lies they had told about the dangers of using their products. Releasing a new cigarette and calling it “safer” would essentially be an admission that the tobacco companies understood the dangers of cigarettes all along. So, the tobacco companies danced around the subject and generally avoided making direct safety claims. Instead, they used slogans like “the better alternative” and mentioned features like “reduced secondhand smoke.”

The early attempts to create safer cigarettes all failed to gain widespread acceptance among consumers, and given how expensive those brands were to produce, it’s unlikely that the tobacco companies cared all that much. Standard cigarettes were much more profitable, but everyone in the tobacco industry felt that it was necessary to research safer alternatives anyway because no company wanted to be the last one to have an alternative cigarette brand ready to bring to the market when consumer preferences changed in the future.

No one foresaw the possibility that a truly disruptive nicotine product would come from outside the tobacco industry – but that’s exactly what happened at the beginning of the 21st century. All at once, the world witnessed a paradigm shift in the nature of nicotine use, and it’s a shift that’s still ongoing.

Vaping Forces the Tobacco Industry’s Hand

In the late 2000s, the first e-cigarettes appeared and began to spread around the world. The prospect of an alternative nicotine product that was absorbed quickly through the lungs but didn’t have the tar and carbon monoxide of cigarettes piqued consumers’ interest, and by the end of the next decade, tens of millions of people around the world had successfully quit smoking with the help of e-cigarettes. Meanwhile, health experts like Public Health England were publishing articles claiming that vaping was as much as 95 percent less harmful than smoking.

Seldom has any product been as disruptive in the field of public health as the e-cigarette has, and it’s unlikely that anything has ever disrupted the tobacco industry as much as vaping. The main reason why the tobacco industry’s early attempts to create a safer cigarette failed was the fact that those products were low in smoke and often low in nicotine as well. In other words, they didn’t taste the same as traditional cigarettes and often weren’t as satisfying either.

E-cigarettes have the same issue in that they don’t taste like tobacco cigarettes. With their flavored e-liquids, though, they can taste like almost anything else. That’s the key that allowed vaping to gain widespread acceptance among smokers when the tobacco industry’s alternative cigarettes had failed.

The tobacco industry, however, does not like interlopers. Thanks to the industry’s research, the technology necessary to create a safer cigarette had been available for a long time. The industry was merely waiting for something to force its hand, and that’s exactly what vaping did.

HNB Is the Tobacco Industry’s Answer to Vaping

The tobacco industry has had a two-pronged response to vaping. On one side, the tobacco companies have hedged their bets by acquiring, creating or investing in e-cigarette brands such as Blu, Vuse and JUUL. On the other side, companies began to release tobacco vaping products that heated the tobacco rather than burning it.

The IQOS system from Philip Morris is the best known of those products. It’s actually related to the Accord brand from the late 1990s, with the main difference being that the IQOS is a much smaller and more attractive device. The IQOS system looks like a slightly oversized cigarette. Some people didn’t want to try the Accord system in the ‘90s simply because they didn’t want to be seen using such a bulky and unattractive device. Compared to Accord, IQOS also tastes better and delivers more nicotine.

IQOS is a battery-powered device with a blade-shaped heating element. You use it by inserting a tobacco stick that looks like a miniature cigarette. When you puff on the tobacco stick, the IQOS turns on and heats the tobacco to release its nicotine and aromatic compounds. The IQOS system works without combustion and therefore reduces the user’s exposure to some of the harmful compounds in cigarette smoke.

How Do HNB Products Compare to Vaping?

With the new generation of HNB tobacco products, we now have two viable alternatives to combustible cigarettes vying for your attention and money. How do HNB products compare to vaping?

The first thing you should know about HNB products is that they may potentially be safer than smoking. In the United States, Philip Morris has been granted permission to market IQOS with the claim that it reduces the user’s exposure to harmful chemicals compared to smoking. IQOS is still a tobacco product, though, and even in reduced concentrations, the harmful compounds are still there. It’s likely that vaping is significantly less risky than IQOS.

The other thing that you’ll need to consider when choosing between vaping and HNB products is flavor. IQOS doesn’t taste exactly like a smoked cigarette, but since it is a tobacco product, it’s definitely comparable. An e-cigarette, on the other hand, doesn’t taste anything like a cigarette at all. That being said, there is a reason why vaping has gained worldwide acceptance and most low-smoke or smoke-free cigarettes have failed. The reason is because, although e-cigarettes don’t taste like tobacco cigarettes, they can taste like almost anything else. Once people learn that they can enjoy fruit, candy and other sweet flavors while getting their nicotine, they often lose interest in trying to recapture the flavor of cigarette smoke.