Smokers’ rhapsody


During the third week of July, three things happened: my brother—against the advice of his doctor—began smoking again; my younger son stepped off a plane with an e-cigarette shaped like a USB hanging out his mouth; and my eldest son shared his worst nightmare with me—a dream in which I was disappearing in a cloud of smoke. The subconscious reveals our deepest fears, and my sons are obviously extremely concerned for my health. They’re not alone; I was troubled by these three incidents as well. I need to be more conscientious about my addiction, and the effect it is having on my family.

That same week, my brother gifted me an IQOS device, along with a few packs of HEETS.

My brother thought that at age 50, gadgets were not for him, but he knew that I’m always curious to try new tech. I was also given the opportunity to visit the CUBE in Neuchatel, Switzerland—the $200 million R&D facility where the IQOS was developed. Between this new tech and my family’s smoking habits or fears are a lot of mixed feelings I decided to share. IQOS is a heated tobacco system designed by Philip Morris International (PMI) and HEETS are the tobacco consumable that is designed to be used with the IQOS.

Je vous parle d’un temps que les moins de quarante ans ne peuvent pas connaître.” To misquote Azanavour.

Michel Piccoli and Romy Schnider smoked through every scene in Les Choses de la Vie when it was released in 1970. The script writer wanted to make sure they represented the liberal, romantic, and sophisticated middle class of the late 60s. Only the kissing scenes got the cigarettes briefly moved from their lips. Lucky Luke, our childhood hero, had a cigarette in his mouth in every illustration we rubbernecked. It was impossible to find one picture in my parents’ wedding album that does not have at least one smoker in it. Growing up, a big silver plate decorated the middle of our salon, and in it you could find every brand, size, and flavor of tobacco cigarettes on the market. My high school teacher allowed students to smoke with him in philosophy class. We smoked in planes, cars, restaurants, nightclubs, bedrooms, and bathrooms. Cigarette companies (the Big Four) competed ferociously; their commercials always found healthier, happier, more beautiful, and more famous stars to make the audience drool. The Marlboro Man was our hero, although to this day I am still not sure what he meant by “Come to where the flavor is, come to the Marlboro country.” Was it an invitation to come to the USA? Or just insinuating that smoking Marlboros would be as good? As a kid, I just wanted to be a cowboy just like him—the ads seemed to work just as well on children.

I don’t remember who I was with or where I was when I started smoking. Was it with Marwan in his orange Mini Cooper? With Cherine next to Mehio, the shopkeeper who had a stand on my high school campus and would sell students a cigarette when we couldn’t afford a full pack? Or with Iyad at Mecano, the legendary discotheque at Summerland Hotel? All I remember is that it was the summer of 1984, and I was 15.

The whole Rolling Stones crew, Bowie, Hendrix, Audrey Hepburn, JFK, Churchill, Che, Castro—all smoked. There was a cigarette for every taste, mood, and character—Marlboro reds for the “Joe Camaro,” Camels for the “Gino Cappuccino,” while the “Artsy Fartsy” smoked Gitanes sans filtre. We smoked without a care, trying every new offer on the market in constant pursuit of cool, while listening to Serge Gainsbourg’s tunes: “Dieu est un fumeur de havanes, Je vois ses nuages gris, Je sais qu’il fume même la nuit, comme moi ma chérie.” We believed Serge.

It wasn’t until Sharon Stone’s famous police precinct scene in Basic Instinct in 1992 that the anti-tobacco witch hunt began. Ever since, we have been bombarded with anti-smoking campaign after anti-smoking campaign. To be a smoker now is to be alienated: We have been fired, sanctioned, and judged by lawmakers, health practitioners, and NGOs, who persistently traumatize us with shocking pictures and bold-print warnings.

For most of us it is too late; we are vulnerable nicotine addicts who fell victim after a decades-long brainwashing. Coolness removed, we still strike the “too-cool-for-school” pose—this time disgraced in the cold outside restaurants, airports, nightclubs, and hotels.

When deprived, we get distracted during meetings, leave our dates and families at dinner tables, go out hunting in the middle of the night in search of an open store, even gaze into ashtrays in hope of finding an unfinished cigarette butt. Anything to get a fix. Yes, a fix. We are no different from any other type of addict. And we accept the humiliation: Imagine the feeling of disgrace when standing in a smoking glass cage at an airport, the tobacco-stained walls and the passersby looking in with disdain while us addicts suck in as much nicotine as possible before the last call, boarding the plane stinking from head to toe. Education is irrelevant: Reason does not work with addicts; we will always find a good reason to smoke just one more cigarette. Health warnings and doctors’ advice be damned, some nicotine addicts are even caught smoking on hospital balconies after heart surgery and chemotherapy.

I don’t know what was in the brief given to design thinkers at the CUBE—located not far from the International Institute for Management (IMD) in Lausanne, the university where the Nespresso machine was conceptualized, not unlike many other genius entrepreneurial ideas that Switzerland has become known for—but I can imagine it would go something like this:

“Philip Morris International is looking to compete against the wave of nicotine vape products and devices that are popping up every day and flex its corporate muscles through the development of a new tobacco product that will allow it to capitalize on its leading market positioning, good image (among smokers only, of course), logistics, supply chain, etc. The new design needs to look cool, be user-friendly, and should relieve smokers from many of the discomforts of cigarette smoking:  smell, aftertaste, stained teeth, stained fingers, stained walls, stained carpets, stained furniture, stained children, and, of course, stained lungs. As for the latter, the new device should administer the same amount of nicotine found in a cigarette but allow us to argue that it reduces harm compared to other products that have leading contributors to heart disease and lung cancer. The consumable, should be made from biodegradable elements, and be manufactured using our existing production facilities.” (This reconstruction was drawn solely from my imagination).

Several packs of cigarettes later—assuming that PMI scientists are loyal to the brand—the design team came up with the brilliant IQOS, a concept that is so promising for PMI that it has secured  $4.5 billion in investment so far. Built on a heat-not-burn concept, the HEETS use the existing production lines at the company’s facilities. Shaken, shredded, then mixed with other ingredients and flavors, the tobacco is transformed into long sheets before being packed in neat mini cigarettes that are inserted into the IQOS. It takes 20 seconds for the tobacco to reach 350 degrees Celsius—thanks to the rechargeable battery heated blade inside the IQOS device—before releasing vape for the user to inhale. It is quite a long wait when you need an immediate fix, and an even longer wait when the IQOS needs to recharge. This is particularly frustrating when you require two fixes in a row: Journalists like me who work under strict deadlines will understand. Personally, I enjoy the smell that dissipates during the heating process; it reminds me of a smell from my childhood—one that would appear when my father used the cigar lighter before it reached burning point in his non-air conditioned 1969 Mercedes 280 SE.

Since it does not burn the tobacco, no tar is inhaled, and PMI’s research argues that this minimizes the effect on the lungs. For my part, I do feel healthier. I run better and for longer. I feel as though my lungs are happier. Even my neighbor, an oncologist, confirmed this to me—with a disclaimer of course since the United States Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved the IQOS.

The taste of the HEETS is not bad and there are several flavors to choose from, but its smell does linger in the room and can bother others, even if it dissipates quite quickly after use.

To test in social impact further, I discreetly monitored people’s reactions at Barcelona airport, while waiting in line to board and in the comfort of airport lounges and restaurants. No one seemed to notice the smell.

I am sure that PMI board members and management are proud of themselves. Ten thousand converts per day or $366 million from sales of the IQOS per year at $100 a pop, not to mention they are using the Apple playbook with never-ending upgrades—the IQOS 2.4, 2.4+, 3. The real money is in the sale of HEETS. One carton costs $50 in Europe, duty free, so one a week or 52 per year comes to $2600 on HEETS annually per person—unless you have a good friend willing to bring HEETS from Russia, where the price is less than half. Do the math and subtract the extra 35 percent in additional costs to produce HEETS, that’s good business. At least their consciences have been sold at a high price.

As an addict, I must say I am satisfied with my two-month experience so far. The IQOS device successfully allows me to replicate my terrible smoking habits, while arguably reducing my self-inflicted harm. Hopefully IQOS can help me keep my promise to my elder son—to one day quit entirely—and maybe if I can overcome my nicotine dependence, then at least when he kicks my ass at basketball I will go down with a bit more style.

As for my younger—at times overly inquisitive—son with his new e-cig contraption: I beg you not to make the same mistakes I made. Sons are supposed to outgrow their fathers, and become stronger, smarter, with slicker dance moves. Do not fall victim to nicotine. Do not become an addict, willing to shell out thousands a year on the latest piece of tech that tries to sell you a smoker’s habits with none of the downsides. Smoking is not good for your health, end of story. Anyone who tries to argue otherwise is deceiving and manipulating you, no matter how hard they try and sell it. Smoking, much like your father, used to be cool.


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