What is a Heat-Not-Burn Cigarette and Can it Help You Quit?

By Meg Neal on at

The Next Big Trend in vaping is actually a very old idea: cigarettes that heat tobacco to produce an inhalable aerosol, but never reach the point of combustion, thus avoiding that sketchy part of smoking where you light something on fire and suck the smoke into your lungs.

How is that any different than the e-cigarettes we've come to know and love/hate? Because heat-not-burn cigs contain tobacco, not just flavoured liquid nicotine, so it's much closer to the experience of smoking a regular cigarette, just without the smoke, smokey smell, and (hopefully) all the carcinogens. Not bad if your New Year's resolution is to kick smoking. Although as with all too-good things, there are caveats.

What Is a Heat-Not-Burn Cigarette and Can It Help You Quit?

iQOS concept images from Philip Morris

Right now, two big tobacco companies are developing "smokeless" burn sticks. Philip Morris, of Marlboro fame, is selling its Marlboro HeatStick in Italy in Japan, with the goal of bringing it to the U.S. in 2016 at about $6 (£4) a pack.

What Is a Heat-Not-Burn Cigarette and Can It Help You Quit?

The HeatStick, which looks like a regular cigarette, is heated inside a battery-powered, pen-like device called iQOS (pronounced "eye-coze"). The sticks are heated to a point just below combustion—so up to 349 degrees C—which produces a nicotine-infused vapour that you inhale through a mouthpiece. The holder can heat about 20 sticks per charge.

Meanwhile, RJ Reynolds—maker of Camel, Kool and Winstons—is launching a heat-not-burn product called Revo in February, first in Wisconsin at a similar price point, and then expanding from there if it sells.

What Is a Heat-Not-Burn Cigarette and Can It Help You Quit?

Unlike the HeatStick, the Revo uses an actual flame, which lights a carbon tip that heats foil-wrapped tobacco until it evaporates into a flavoured vapour.

Each cig lasts about five minutes, then you let it cool down and throw it out. It emits just whimper of smoke, and doesn't cause that telltale smoker smell.

While you can't find either of these in the US yet, the technology is nothing new. The Marlboro HeatSticks improves on a heat-not-burn product called the Accord, which launched in 90s and totally flopped.

What Is a Heat-Not-Burn Cigarette and Can It Help You Quit?

And Revo is essentially the exact same product as Reynolds' Eclipse smokeless cigarette, which was developed in the 90s, hit the market in 2003 and fizzled out within four short years. It's got a new name, look, and marketing scheme, but the concept is unchanged.

Indeed, big tobacco firms—which realised as early as the 50s that cigarettes were killing us—have been developing technology to strip out the combustion part of the equation for decades. Now, the cigarette makers are hoping that vaping's explosive popularity and an increasingly anti-smoking public opinion is a sign the time is ripe to give it another go.

But can the gimmick actually help you quit? Is it even safe? The short answer is, we don't know yet. The longer answer is as controversial, scientifically murky and politically complex as the heated debate on the health effects of e-cigarettes.

As of now, barring further research, the general consensus about heat-not-burn cigs is similar to vaping products: It stands to reason that not burning the tobacco is less bad for you than burning it, but it's maybe probably still bad for you. How much less, we're not sure. Is there some unknown consequence that's just as dangerous as smoking butts? Maybe. Is there a public health impact associated with products that encourage the habit at all, and potentially get a new generation hooked on nicotine? Sure. On the other hand, if a new product can get people to quit that otherwise would stay addicted, that's hard to argue with.

The current research is even more preliminary. A recent New York Times article sums it up:

The first study, conducted in 2013 in Poland, showed that levels of some of the most toxic contaminants in tobacco smoke were substantially lower in users of the iQOS heat-not-burn device than in smokers, though they were somewhat higher than in those who abstained. That study, however, lasted only five days. Scientists have not yet published results from a second study, which involved 160 people and lasted three months, company officials said. A third study, which is expected to last six to 12 months, has yet to begin, they said.

Looking back isn't too reassuring either. Not only was the Eclipse never proven to be less harmful than combustibles, Reynolds was actually sued for making those claims in the first place. The industry has since moved away from calling heat-not-burn products "safer cigarettes" and is hedging with terms like "reduced risk" or "less lethal."

It's also worth noting that tobacco companies have an obvious reason to introduce a cigarette alternative that still contains, you know, tobacco, that has everything to do with money and nothing to do with health. Until firms can get the FDA to sign off on a health claim, the smoke-free, smell-free angle is how the companies will be marketing its shiny new wares.

What Is a Heat-Not-Burn Cigarette and Can It Help You Quit?

That said, US tobacco isn't the only one developing portable tobacco vaporisers. If the heat-not-burn cigs sound a lot like the slate of vape pens already on the market that heat loose-leaf tobacco or more likely, weed, it's because it's basically the same thing.

So if you're trying to ween yourself off smoking in 2015, you could try battery-powered vapes like the popular Ploom Pax to heat tobacco into a smokeless vapour. But you're better off skipping the tobacco altogether.

Images: iQOS concept images from Philip Morris / AP via Reynolds / Tobaccoproducts.org