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Smokescreen

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Anti-tobacco activists have long wished Big Tobacco would just disappear, but that’s not the corporate way; when one’s core product line falls out of fashion, diversification is the name of the game. So as cigarette manufacturers look for their next cash crop, it’s no shocker that another smokeable substance should catch their fancy.

The cannabis-growing community has long expressed just such fears of corporate intrusion into their grass-roots industry, with some growers’ resistance to decriminalization partially motivated by the desire to keep industrial giants out.

“Will Big Tobacco Become Big Marijuana?,” worried Trevor Hughes in April 2015 in “USA Today,” quoting Chris Walsh, editor of “Marijuana Business Daily” as admitting to “…a ton of paranoia that they’re buying up warehouses and signing secret deals.” Yet Hughes’ enquiries to representatives of the biggies were met with denials of any plans to get into cannabis. Jeffrey Friedland, the media-savvy CEO of INTIVA (a global cannabis investment company), was also doubtful back then, telling Hughes, “…they’re not going to do anything until you have an Act of Congress…[legalizing cannabis].”

About a year later, Friedland had to stand corrected, as he confessed in a post on his own blog, JeffreyFriedland.com, entitled “Investment by Philip Morris in a Cannabis Technology company is a Game Changer for the Industry.”

“Last February I was asked by “USA Today” whether I thought that the cigarette industry was investing in the cannabis industry. My comment at the time was that I thought that cigarette manufacturers wouldn’t go anywhere near the plant until it was legal in the U.S. at the federal level.”

But now? The “game-changer” in question is Philip Morris International’s (PMI) announcement of a multi-million dollar investment in a medical cannabis company. It turns out that the biggest tobacco giant of them all will not wait around for American drug law reform. Instead, they’re leaping at investment now – in Israel – which is following its leadership in cannabis science by pioneering legislation that allows the product’s global export.

This is huge. Surely, policymakers and economists will notice when U.S.-based firms start investing significant sums overseas, which could be invested domestically, due to federal stagnation on legalizing cannabis.

The lucky recipient of PMI’s largesse is a young Israeli cannabis science company, Syqe Medical, whose website describes their aspirations:
“… to transform cannabis and other botanicals into mainstream medical drugs. Our vision is to decentralize drug development and streamline its clinical testing in a 21st century fashion. To achieve these goals, our company has been implementing cutting-edge technologies for over six years and employs a multi-disciplinary team of electronic engineers, mechanical engineers, industrial designers, chemists, biologists, physicians and pharmacologists.”

Their invention is certainly neat; It is the Syqe Inhaler, “ …(which) utilizes selective 100 microgram dosing precision, real time thermal and flow controllers, lung interfacing and wireless connectivity. This new level of precision will allow patients to reach the coveted optimum balance between symptom relief and psychoactivity, regaining their quality of life.”

There’s even a hospital-use version, with a “caregiver interface” that’s already available in Israel.
So what’s the catch? What’s wrong with Big Tobacco moving away from the poisonous plant and towards the healing one?

A cynic might intuit that it’s all just part of a self-serving strategy that PMI has committed to since the 1990s saw cigarette-smoking’s image of “cool” start to char, badly, resulting in a PR make-over. The website “Opposing Views” (slogan: No agenda. You decide) published data that, as part of this campaign, PMI committed huge sums to noble causes like feeding the hungry, helping victims of domestic violence and disaster relief, donating over $500 million to charity in recent decades.

The present day CEO, Andre Calantzopoulos, would even have us believe that Philip Morris envisions a day when it doesn’t sell cigarettes anymore, according to a 2016 article in “Fortune.” When he goes on to enthuse about “smokeless cigarettes” replacing the regular kind, it’s clear that getting out of tobacco isn’t the company plan.

But wait…. smokeless cigarettes… cannabis vape technology…. could there be a connection here?
Turns out that the Syqe Inhaler isn’t the only fume-delivery system that PMI-funded scientists are working on. Grabbing an even bigger share of the company’s investment kitty than the Syqe Inhaler is PMI’s hotly-hyped IQOS. The IQOS works on identical principles to a cannabis vaporizer: it’s an electronic device that gently heats “plugs” of actual tobacco leaf (so, not liquid or concentrates) to temperatures that max out at 350°, much lower than the scorching 600° generated by incinerating tobacco. The result is an infused vapor that, reportedly, has more of a real, cigarette-like, tobacco flavor than conventional nicotine vaporizers. The claim, made on Philip Morris’ website and in its PR material, is that this “heat-not-burn” smokeless cigarette is, by definition, safer than regular ‘ole cancer sticks.
Not everyone is convinced. In March 2017, “Haaretz” reported criticism of the IQOS by the attorney general, the Health Ministry’s legal advisor, the Israel Medical Association and the Israel Cancer Association, in light of a High Court petition brought against Israel’s Health Ministry.

According to the Association of Public Health Physicians, “Philip Morris, the world’s largest tobacco corporation, whose products have killed millions of people over the years around the world, including in Israel, has launched an extensive overt and covert media and PR campaign to introduce its new cigarettes in Israel.”

Tests have indeed shown that IQOS tobacco vapor is not free of the harmful toxins present in cigarette smoke, but nevertheless, Israel’s Health Ministry allowed IQOS an exemption from current regulations on cigarettes, such as advertising restrictions.

PMI’s official response to the complaint included the arch observation that, “This petition was filed by a commercial competitor.” Indeed it was: Israel’s own Dubek tobacco company, miffed, no doubt, at PMI being gifted a free pass to advertise its new wares, even to children.

The article’s author, Ronny Linder-Ganz, charges that PMI’s “big investment in lobbying and PR in Israel over the years appears to have paid off royally.”

As cool as Syqe’s inventions undoubtedly are, Philip Morris’s entry into Israel’s cannabis vape technology could be viewed cynically; not as a progressive, pro-cannabis effort, but just a handy method for gathering scientific data applicable to tobacco consumption while simultaneously helping with corporate image-reform, and greasing the wheels of Israeli bureaucracy.

“Follow the money,” goes the old adage, and if you do, the result is clear.
Amount Philip Morris invested in the Syqe Inhaler: $20 million
The IQOS? About $3 billion.
Put that in your pen and vape it.

 

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Diana Trimble

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