NEW DELHI - Philip Morris International Inc is planning to launch its iQOS smoking device in India, four sources familiar with the matter told Reuters, as the tobacco giant seeks a foothold in a country with the world's second-biggest smoker population.
Philip Morris says the sleek, penlike iQOS heats but does not burn tobacco, producing a nicotine-containing vapour rather than smoke and making it less harmful than conventional cigarettes. The company says it wants to one day stop selling cigarettes altogether.
India has stringent laws to deter tobacco use, which the government says kills more than 900,000 people every year. But the country still has 106 million adult smokers, second only to China according to the World Health Organization (WHO), making it a lucrative market for Philip Morris to target.
A government source said New Delhi would keep an "open mind" if Philip Morris approached it to discuss a device that helped people quit smoking, but added such devices, including e-cigarettes, could be banned if found to be harmful.
The health ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Philip Morris plans to start strategising an iQOS launch in India, which would include work on branding and pricing, as well as reaching out to media and regulators, sources aware of the plan said.
The company's top corporate affairs executive in India, R. Venkatesh, has been interviewing candidates for a senior executive who would focus on iQOS, the sources said.
The company wants "to put together a strategy to achieve its acceptability as a reduced risk product", said one of the sources, adding that Philip Morris wanted to have a public relations strategy in place before moving ahead.
A Philip Morris spokesman said "we do not comment on our launch plans, but are committed to working hard to replace cigarettes with scientifically substantiated smoke-free products". Venkatesh did not respond to a request for comment.
But the company appears to have already started building a public case for iQOS in India.
On "World No Tobacco Day" last week, Venkatesh wrote a column for India's Economic Times newspaper, calling for "effective regulations" for alternative smoking devices.
"With alternatives to cigarettes available and countries already delivering on their smoke-free ambitions, the incentive is there for lawmakers to support Indian smokers - who deserve a better option," Venkatesh said.
Prakash C. Gupta, director at the Healis Sekhsaria Institute of Public Health near Mumbai, criticized Philip Morris' plans, saying iQOS would be used by affluent young people in India "which will be harmful for public health".
INDIA'S TOBACCO MARKET
Philip Morris has for years promoted its Marlboro cigarettes in India. Though its market share has quadrupled in recent years, Marlboro still accounts for only about 1.4 percent of India's $10 billion cigarette market.
According to internal documents published by Reuters last year, the company sees India as a "high potential market" where it aimed at "winning the hearts and minds" of people between 18, the minimum legal age to buy tobacco products, and 24.
IQOS is currently used by nearly 5 million people in more than 30 countries, led by Japan which effectively bans regular e-cigarettes but allows "heat not burn" devices.
India could offer Philip Morris a huge opportunity due to its burgeoning middle class, said Shane MacGuill, head of tobacco research at Euromonitor International.
"It's a bet on the future," MacGuill said. "In the longer term, there could be very big rewards for them in India."
Philip Morris' so-called reduced risk products, such as iQOS, helped the company clock $3.8 billion in net revenues last year, compared with $739 million in the previous year.
To garner support for iQOS in India, Philip Morris plans to reach out to influential people who could voice public support for the device ahead of its launch, two of the sources said.
Still, if Philip Morris seeks Indian approvals, it would need to convince a government that has in recent years raised cigarette taxes, ordered companies to print bigger health warnings on tobacco packs and launched a quit-smoking helpline.
Philip Morris has also applied to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for permission to market the device as being less harmful than cigarettes.
Dr. Vinayak M. Prasad, who leads WHO's tobacco-free initiative in Geneva, said the agency had advised those governments that had consulted it that it had no evidence to show products such as iQOS were less harmful than conventional forms of tobacco.
"These products should be regulated, not allowed to be used in public places that are smoke-free and taxed sufficiently high enough to deter young people to get addicted," Prasad told Reuters on Friday.
India's health ministry has for years said it wants to regulate e-cigarettes - devices which use a nicotine-laced liquid. Still, there is no federal regulation for the product that activists say is harmful and acts as a gateway to tobacco.
In a filing to a Delhi court that is hearing a plea to regulate e-cigarettes, the federal health ministry in April described such Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS) as "new emerging threats".
The ministry, in its filing seen by Reuters, said it was developing guidelines for regulating - including possibly banning - the manufacture, import or sale of e-cigarettes.
"Glamorizing marketing techniques of ENDS as less harmful products purely mimics the marketing techniques used by the cigarette industry," the ministry said, without specifically mentioning heat-not-burn smoking devices such as iQOS.
Despite that stance, the government source said the health ministry was still undecided on whether to ban or regulate e-cigarettes, and wanted more consultation to decide whether their efficacy as an aid to help people stop smoking regular cigarettes outweighed any potential harm.
Globally, Philip Morris also lobbies regulators to not classify iQOS as a regular cigarette, an argument that, if won, can lead to lower taxes. The company says the tobacco plugs inserted into the iQOS do not produce smoke, and the device itself is an electronic product.
It plans to do the same in India.
"The first thing is to ensure the customs duties are not prohibitively high," said one of the sources.