Promotion of Newer Products Around The UK Menthol Ban

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Tobacco companies used harm reduction as a strategy to achieve their business objectives. In advance of the menthol ban in the UK, they promoted their newer nicotine and tobacco products: heated tobacco products (HTPs), e-cigarettes (electronic nicotine delivery systems, ENDS) and nicotine pouches.

Philip Morris

A leaked Philip Morris International (PMI) document from 2014 indicated that it opposed flavour bans and identified the European menthol ban as a threat to its business.1 However, in a presentation in February 2020, it stated that the ban was “not expected to have [a] significant impact”.12 CEO Andre Calantzopoulos said that, while menthol accounted for 10% of consumption in the region, this was in fact an “opportunity” for PMI’s heated tobacco product IQOS, as its tobacco sticks (HEETs) were not covered by the ban.3 In early 2020, Philip Morris actively promoted IQOS as an alternative to menthol cigarettes, to retailers and to consumers.4567 IQOS is more profitable for PMI than its cigarettes.8

Philip Morris has only a small market share of the UK cigarette market. Nevertheless, Philip Morris Ltd (PML) set up two websites: menthol-ban-retail.co.uk (aimed at retailers) and menthol-ban.co.uk (aimed at consumers). The consumer-facing website advocated three options for current menthol smokers: to “quit”, “heat” or “vape”.9 It also contained market research data, commissioned by PML, stating that, while 15% of smokers would try to quit in response to the ban, over 50% would consider switching to HTPs “once made aware of this option”. While this site mentioned the NHS stop smoking service, and provided a web link, this appeared as a small “disclaimer” at the bottom of the page.9 From Philip Morris’ communications with retailers, it appears that the HTPs it referred to were PMI’s own product IQOS, and that its survey participants were shown the device.710

Market research conducted in the UK in 2020 found very different figures from PML. A survey by HIM & MCA, reported in retail publication Convenience Store in May 2020, found that only 6% of menthol smokers said they would switch to menthol HTPs, with 16% likely to opt for e-cigarettes.11 Another survey by e-cigarette retailer Vape Club produced similar results to HIM/MCA; 39% of UK menthol smokers intended to stop using tobacco products, with 18% planning to switch to e-cigarettes, and 15% saying they would quit use Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT) or no product. Assuming no other products, this would mean that only 6% intended switch to HTPs, the same figure arrived at in the HIM & MCA survey.1112 Both organisations surveyed 1,000 UK menthol smokers, but as of May 2020 no public health survey data was available to confirm these figures. The 2016 ITC survey found that just over 15% of menthol smokers in the UK intended to quit in response to the ban, close to the EU average of 16%.13

Image of screenshot with menthol ban countdown clock, and IQOS pop-up and £10 trial

Figure 1: Screenshot of UK IQOS website, February 2020.14

Philip Morris also set up a page on its UK IQOS website, containing information about the ban, including a link to an EU trade factsheet.1415 The page features a “Menthol Ban Countdown” clock; tells customers that “small retailers like corner shops and news agents will likely be running their stock down in time for the ban, so it may become harder to find menthol cigarettes”; and provides links to buy two HEETS menthol products directly from its website.14 In February 2019, a pop-up offered a trial of IQOS (see figure 1).14 Retailers were also given material on IQOS to hand out to customers.11

In PML’s communications with retailers, it appears that the HTPs it referred to were its own product, IQOS, and that survey participants were shown the device.716

In an article published in the trade magazine Talking Retail in mid-March 2020, representatives of PML warned shop owners that they would lose customers and money due to the ban, pointing to a “financial impact calculator” on their menthol ban retail website. An average figure of £13,500 per year was quoted, representing loss of cigarettes sales plus the value of other “basket” items bought at the same time. No evidence was provided in this article to explain how PML had reached this estimate. At the same time the company promoted IQOS starter kits, saying that this was “a massive opportunity for retailers to say to smokers there’s still a product that’s closer in experience to cigarettes”.7 PML suggested that retailers could register on its website to access these kits, and that this was where they would be able to find information about the company’s buy-back scheme for unsold menthol cigarettes.717

Retailers were also offered a series of financial incentives to stock IQOS, through its “Heetwave Open” programme. An e-mail sent from PML to retailers in early May 2020, encourage them to “Sign up and earn £170+”.18 In addition to free HEETs products and money for registering sales of IQOS kits, they were offered money for completing quizzes, watching promotional videos, and uploading images of point of sale material.18 According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, PML also hired sales representatives to promote IQOS directly to convenience stores, as part of its efforts to reach a target of a 400% increase in sales of IQOS and HEETS in 2020.19 PML continued to promote IQOS as an alternative to menthol cigarettes after the ban.20 In 2021, it combined menthol with other flavourings in its Mauve HEETS variant, which PML described as “a crisp menthol blend with a taste of dark forest fruits”.21

Since the menthol ban PMI have withdrawn their Nicocigs and IQOS Mesh e-cigarettes from sale in the UK, along with Veev liquids. For more on PMI’s newer IQOS VEEV e-cigarette, yet to be launched in the UK as of November 2021, see E-cigarettes: Philip Morris International

Japan Tobacco International

Japan Tobacco International (JTI) set up a menthol ban section on its retailers’ website (jtiadvance.co.uk), which was promoted in the retail press.222324

This trade website also contained information for consumers, recommending JTI’s newer nicotine products, with links to websites selling its Logic e-cigarettes and Nordic Spirit nicotine pouches.2224 It also warned consumers against turning to illicit tobacco.24

Imperial Brands

Imperial Brands, while not setting up specific web pages, offered advice to retailers in the UK trade press.25 Imperial’s Corporate Affairs Director, Duncan Cunningham, in Talking Retail, linked the ban to potential sales of roll-your-own (RYO) products:2526

“As a result of the forthcoming changes, we may see some menthol smokers shift into buying RYO products, especially given the arrival of recent product innovations, such as Rizla Polar Blast crushball tips, that will help them continue with their flavour of choice.”

Cunningham also suggested that retailers should increase their stock of the company’s blu  e-cigarette, including its nicotine salt e-liquids to “help heavy smokers switch”.2526

British American Tobacco

British American Tobacco (BAT) promoted its e-cigarette Vype in the retail press before the ban, and launched new mint e-liquid flavours.272829

European websites

Similar dedicated menthol web pages appeared in France for IQOS from PMI, Vuse from BAT and Logic from JTI. CNTC suggests these were marketing sites rather than information sites.30

TobaccoTactics Resources

Relevant Links

TCRG Research

For a comprehensive list of all TCRG publications, including research that evaluates the impact of public health policy, go to the Bath TCRG’s list of publications.

References

  1. abPhilip Morris International, Corporate Affairs Approach and Issues, Leaked PMI presentation, 2014, accessed March 2020
  2. Philip Morris International, 2019 Fourth-Quarter and Full-Year Results PMI presentation, 6 February 2020, accessed March 2020
  3. Philip Morris International, 2019 Fourth-Quarter and Full-Year Results Conference Call transcript, 6 February 2020, accessed March 2020
  4. R. Hegarty, Focus on tobacco: Smooth Criminal – the smooth taste of menthol cigarettes will soon be illegal, as flavoured variants are banned. How is big tobacco fighting back?, The Grocer, 15 February 2020:49-54
  5. D. Shrimpton, IQOS opens up to independents as menthol cigarette ban looms, Talking Retail, 1 January 2020, accessed March 2020
  6. D. Worthington, Philip Morris launches new menthol ban site for retailers, Better Retailing, 2 January 2020, accessed March 2020
  7. abcdeD. Shrimpton, IQOS menthol kits and pricing unveiled, Talking Retail, 13 March 2020, accessed March 2020
  8. STOP/Tobacco Control Research Group, Addiction at any cost: Philip Morris International Uncovered, STOP Report, 2020, accessed March 2020
  9. abPhilip Morris Ltd, A Moment of Change,  menthol-ban.co.uk, undated, accessed March 2020
  10. Philip Morris Ltd, Are you ready for the menthol cigarette ban?, menthol-ban-retail.co.uk, archived 19 February 2020, accessed March 2020
  11. abcG. Walker, Retailers face challenges in last week of sale for menthol cigarettes, Convenience Store, 13 May 2020, accessed May 2020
  12. L. Wells, Almost half a million smokers will quit as a result of the menthol ban, study reveals, Talking Retail, 11 May 2020, accessed May 2020
  13. M. Zatoński, A. Herbeć, W. Zatoński et al, Characterising smokers of menthol and flavoured cigarettes, their attitudes towards tobacco regulation, and the anticipated impact of the Tobacco Products Directive on their smoking and quitting behaviours: The EUREST-PLUS ITC Europe Surveys,  Tobacco Induced Diseases, 2018;16
  14. abcdPhilip Morris Products S.A., When are menthol cigarettes being banned in the UK?, uk.iqos.com, undated, accessed March 2020
  15. European Commission, Ban on flavoured tobacco products and new requirements for ecigarettes from 20 May 2016, undated, accessed May 2020
  16. Philip Morris Ltd, Are you ready for the menthol cigarette ban?, menthol-ban-retail.co.uk, archived 19 February 2020, accessed March 2020
  17. J. Courtez, Exclusive: retailers warned to clear non-track-and-trace stock 2020, Better Retailing, 12 February 2020, accessed March 2020
  18. abPhilip Morris Ltd, e-mail to retailers, 6 May 2020 19:00, Subject: Sign up and earn £170+ with Philip Morris Limited
  19. M.Chapman, Big Tobacco Uses Menthol Cigarette Ban to Promote Rival Products, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 25 May 2020, accessed June 2020
  20. D.Rees, “Great alternatives” to menthol cigarettes exist, says PML, Convenience Store, 15 June 2020, accessed July 2020
  21. D. Shrimpton, Heets tobacco sticks add Mauve variant for IQOS devices, Talking Retail, 23 November 2021, accessed November 2021
  22. abJapan Tobacco International, Preparing for the menthol and capsule cigarette ban, Convenience Store, 14 May 2020, accessed May 2020
  23. G. Walker, New JTI website seeks to dispel widespread menthol ban confusion, Convenience Store, 14 February 2020, accessed March 2020
  24. abcJapan Tobacco International, Menthol Ban 2020, jtiadvance.com, undated, accessed March 2020
  25. abcC. Dillon, Preparing for the menthol ban with Imperial Tobacco, Better Retailing, 9 January 2020, accessed March 2020
  26. abScottish Local Retailer/Japan Tobacco International, Making A Mint: Everything you need to know to successfully navigate the menthol ban, PDF. Source: Action on Smoking and Health (ASH)
  27. G. Simpson, Exclusive: BAT introduces NPD to combat menthol ban, Asian Trader, 11 March 2020, accessed June 2020
  28. BAT launches new range of vape products ahead of menthol ban, Convenience Store, 7 May 2020, accessed June 2020
  29. F. Briggs, BAT UK launches series of vaping products to support menthol tobacco users ahead of ban, Retail Times, 7 May 2020, accessed June 2020
  30. CNTC, Menthol un an après, où en est-on?, May 2021, accessed August 2021
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