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The FDA just cleared a new tobacco product. Here's what it is

Key Points
  • The FDA cleared iQOS, Philip Morris International's device to heat tobacco. 
  • Altria will sell iQOS in the U.S., with plans to introduce it in Atlanta this summer. 
  • iQOS heats tobacco rather than burning it. 
A picture taken on August 21, 2018 in Neuchatel, at the research and development campus of cigarette and tobacco manufacturing company Philip Morris International shows an iQOS electronic cigarette, which heats tobacco sticks but does not burn them.
Fabrice Coffrini | AFP | Getty Images

Philip Morris International won authorization from the Food and Drug Administration to sell iQOS, a device that heats tobacco rather than burning it, in the U.S.

Here's what you need to know.

What are heat-not-burn tobacco products?

As the name suggests, the device heats tobacco but doesn't burn it. Igniting tobacco causes it to undergo a chemical process that emits toxins in cigarettes.

Unlike e-cigarettes, which use nicotine-laced liquid, heat-not-burn products use real tobacco. Tobacco sticks are warmed to a temperature that's high enough to release an aerosol but not hot enough to cause combustion. This process may significantly reduce risk compared with smoking while satisfying users' nicotine cravings.

Philip Morris has already launched iQOS in more than 40 markets around the world. Rivals British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco also sell heat-not-burn products internationally.

How does iQOS work?

The iQOS tobacco heating system contains three parts: a holder, tobacco stick and a charger.

The pen-like device contains a ceramic and gold plate that heats Philip Morris-branded tobacco sticks up to 350 degrees Celsius. Tobacco in cigarettes burns at temperatures at or greater than 600 degrees Celsius.

The tobacco sticks are designed specifically for the device. In the U.S., Marlboro, Marlboro Smooth Menthol and Marlboro Fresh Menthol HeatSticks will be available. PMI will manufacture the products and Richmond, Virginia-based Altria will sell them in the U.S.

PMI says the product is a closer experience to smoking cigarettes than other alternatives, such as e-cigarettes, because it uses actual tobacco. The company says that could convince adult smokers to switch exclusively to iQOS.

Critics point out that some smokers use both e-cigarettes and cigarettes, negating the benefits that switching might bring. PMI is quick to note iQOS is not an e-cigarette, and the presence of tobacco may not have the same appeal as fruity, sweet nicotine-laced liquid.

In clearing iQOS for sale in the U.S., the FDA said it delivered similar nicotine levels as conventional cigarettes, "suggesting a likelihood that IQOS users may be able to completely transition away from combustible cigarettes" and exclusively use iQOS.

Is iQOS safe?

PMI says iQOS is not risk-free, rather it's less risky than conventional cigarettes.

The company stresses quitting smoking is the best way to reduce risk and that iQOS is meant for adult smokers who want to continue using tobacco, not kids or non-smokers. PMI has found exclusively using iQOS significantly lowers users' risk of harm than if they were to continue smoking cigarettes.

"...[T]hrough the FDA's scientific evaluation of the company's applications, peer-reviewed published literature and other sources, the agency found that the aerosol produced by the IQOS Tobacco Heating System contains fewer toxic chemicals than cigarette smoke, and many of the toxins identified are present at lower levels than in cigarette smoke," the FDA said in a statement.

Still, public health groups aren't sold. American Lung Association CEO Harold Wimmer in a statement said the organization is "deeply concerned about the health impacts of this new product."

The FDA is still reviewing PMI's application that if approved would allow it to market iQOS as being safer than cigarettes.

When might I see iQOS on shelves?

Altria plans to start selling iQOS in Atlanta this summer. There, Altria will open an iQOS store and numerous mobile stores. Heatsticks, Marlboro-branded tobacco sticks that are used with the iQOS device, will be available in about 500 retail stores, including Circle K, Murphy USA, QuikTrip, RaceTrac, Speedway and other retailers, Altria said.

The company will take the insights from Atlanta and scale iQOS "quickly and efficiently," CEO Howard Willard said in a statement.