Because even the tobacco industry realizes the cigarette's days are numbered, it has hitched its horse to electronic cigarettes in hopes of riding into what Philip Morris International (PM 1.39%) calls a "smoke-free future." While there are various iterations of e-cigs on the market, a consensus seems to be building around heat-not-burn (HNB) technology that, as its name suggests, heats tobacco to a certain point but doesn't burn it, thereby creating a vapor instead of smoke.

The heating and vapor production are key points, because it's in the smoke of traditional, combustible cigarettes where the toxic chemicals are found. HNB devices such as Philip Morris's iQOS and Reynolds American's (RAI) iFuse are said to produce fewer toxins than regular cigarettes, with a 2015 report by Public Health England, a division of the U.K.'s Department of Health, saying e-cigs are 95% less harmful than combustibles. And earlier this year Philip Morris highlighted a clinical study by Japan's Osaki Hospital Tokyo Heart Center that found smokers who switched to its iQOS device reduced their exposure to 15 harmful chemicals to levels about equal to those of people who quit smoking, as well as improvements in health indicators related to things like lung and heart disease.

The iQOS heat-not-burn device, including packaging and components.

Image source: Philip Morris International.

It's on the basis that its technology is a healthier, safer alternative for smokers and those wanting to quit that Philip Morris is pursuing a reduced-risk classification from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the iQOS. If approved, the global tobacco giant will market the HNB device with partner Altria (MO 0.12%) as Marlboro HeatSticks and gain a huge competitive advantage over their rivals. Being first to market with a device that can be advertised as the healthier alternative will create a massive incentive to switch to its brand.

Where there's smoke -- or vapor -- there's fire

Yet a new study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association could throw all those plans into disarray. Swiss researchers say HNB devices still contain the same harmful compounds found in regular cigarette smoke and in some cases release them in much higher concentrations.

Specifically, researchers compared the components of the iQOS device, including the holder, charger, and HeatSticks, to the contents of Lucky Strike Blue Lights cigarettes. Using a purpose-made device to capture the output of each at a rate of two puffs per minutes (typical of iQOS users who puffed 14 times in five to six minutes), they then analyzed the volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nicotine, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons produced since they have no "safe minimum limit," according to the study.

It found the VOCs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and carbon monoxide were all present in the iQOS vapor, and that it also contained 84% of the nicotine found in regular cigarette smoke. The researchers say not enough information is known about HNB devices and more research needs to be conducted, but in the meantime they advocate HNB devices be restricted and also banned for use indoors, just as with combustible cigarettes. The researchers concluded: "Our analyses reveal that advertising slogans such as 'heat-not-burn' are no substitute for science. Dancing around the definition of smoke to avoid indoor-smoking bans is unethical."

It seems like a damning bit of research, one that could derail Philip Morris' pursuit of a reduced-risk classification and the industry's efforts to bring a better alternative to combustible cigarettes to market. Yet there are some problems here.

A woman exhales using a personal vapor system.

Image source: Getty Images.

A thick fog

As Philip Morris noted in response to the study, the researchers did not use standard methodologies in conducting their experiments and constructed a special-use machine to test the device rather than standard, validated smoking machines. They also did not detail what their machine was, so there is no way of evaluating it.

The results they obtained, particularly for combustible cigarettes, were also often out of line with government standards. For example, acrolein levels were 50 times lower for the Lucky Strike cigarettes than what Health Canada reports, and while the researchers found polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons like acenaphthene three times higher in the iQOS than in cigarettes, it is not a chemical the FDA lists in its regulations.

Even so, Philip Morris has still specifically tested for it and found it in cigarette smoke but not in iQOS vapor. The difference seems to be the researchers were using non-specific methods and found it, suggesting it may have "come from an artefact, not linked specifically to acenaphthene."

A woman's hands shown holding an iQOS device.

Image source: Philip Morris International.

What's good for the goose is good for the gander

Philip Morris says it welcomes independent testing of its products and agrees studies produced by the tobacco industry should undergo rigorous scrutiny. But by the same token, academic studies also need to be stringently reviewed, and it's curious the peer review of the Swiss study failed to mention any of the inconsistencies in methodologies or findings.

When it comes to tobacco and smoking, there is often an agenda attached in the hope of advancing policy. While it's premature to say this study was a solution in search of a problem, there are indications the researchers may have had a bias.

Their contention about heat-not-burn "advertising slogans" misses the point that it's not a marketing tactic, but rather a concise way of describing a product, while their conclusion that HNB devices should be banned for indoor use comes without presentation of any data on the effects the iQOS would have if used indoors. Also, the declaration that there are harmful compounds present in HNB vapor is not as revelatory as the researchers make it seem, since Philip Morris and other manufacturers have long acknowledged their presence. It's why HNB devices are reduced-risk products, not no-risk.

Certainly, more study of HNB devices ought to be conducted, but despite the sensational nature of this particular one, it leaves a lot to be desired and shouldn't be the one that stubs out heat-not-burn technology.