Patrick Muttart says the tobacco giant recognises it cannot “carry on with business as usual”. (ABC News: Sarah McVeigh)
It’s a bold move. One of the biggest tobacco companies in the world is saying it’s getting out of cigarettes “because we should”.
In new ABC podcast How Do You Sleep At Night?, the head of corporate affairs for Philip Morris in Australia and New Zealand, Patrick Muttart, says he welcomes the scepticism this claim brings.
“I welcome the questioning because it gives us an opportunity to tell our story,” he says.
“If I was working for a company or an industry that was free of controversy, I think I’d be bored.”
Patrick Muttart is used to tough fights. He started his career as a political strategist in conservative Canadian politics. He rose quickly, becoming the deputy chief of staff to then Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper at just 33 years old.
During that time, he came to Australia to study John Howard’s brand of clear, concise political messaging. He says the connections forged then endure to this day.
On his Linkedin profile, the smooth-talking Mr Muttart says he is an “expert at moving numbers in the court of public opinion” and he may be embarking on his biggest challenge yet: convincing a government committed to tight tobacco regulation they should allow new products into the market.
“The company recognises that we can’t carry on with business as usual,” he says.
“There is a top-to-bottom commitment to change the business and to move from combustible tobacco products to smoke-free alternatives, whether it’s e-cigarettes, or heated tobacco.”
Taking the smoke out of smoking
Smoking rates are plummeting in the Western world. In Australia, the 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey showed a 12 per cent decline in daily smoking in Australia between 1991 and 2013.
To keep growing, tobacco companies like Philip Morris are looking for new business opportunities.
The company is edging into the e-cigarette market, and is also particularly keen on its heated tobacco contraption, called iQOS, which is already proving popular in Japan.
The difference with iQOS, Mr Muttart explains, is that unlike e-cigarettes which use a liquid nicotine, it still incorporates tobacco into the vaping experience.
A small cigarette-like nub packed with tobacco is pushed into a battery-charged heater. The cigarette heats to a point just below combustion and the user smokes it. Except there is no smoke.
“The main problem with smoking is the smoke,” Mr Muttart says.
“The moment you light anything on fire you create a chemical factory and the key thing is to eliminate combustion from the process.
“You eliminate the combustion, you eliminate the smoke, you’re in a position to offer people a much reduced risk alternative to traditional cigarettes.”
‘Smoke-free’ product just another ‘evil genie’, researchers warn
Simon Chapman from the University of Sydney’s Public Health department says the smoke-free lobbying is a ruse to disguise what will continue to be the company’s biggest income — cigarettes.
In 2016 alone, Philip Morris produced over 800 billion cigarettes across 32 countries.
For Mr Chapman, abandoning the biggest revenue stream of a multi-national company seems unlikely.
“Philip Morris and other tobacco companies have taken these apparently very respectable positions for years but basically nothing changes,” he said.
“They keep looking for new markets, and new markets are generally children and illiterate people in poorer nations.”
He also stresses the research on these new products is not yet conclusive, comparing smoke-free products to traditional cigarettes which took decades to be proven as a public health hazard.
“We know how long it took for the harm of cigarette smoking to come in. You’d think that was a very rash and irresponsible call to make,” Mr Chapman said.
“I’ve worked in tobacco control for 40 years and in that time I’ve seen reduced carcinogen brands, they went nowhere.
“We’ve also seen filters on cigarettes, they’ve been around for 50 and 60 years and none of them reduced the health consequences of tobacco use.”
These failed attempts from tobacco companies have Mr Chapman casting doubt on the smoke-free future Philip Morris is proposing.
He says without conclusive testing, they would be letting “another evil genie out of the bottle.”
The commercial supply of nicotine for use in e-cigarettes is prohibited in Australia. (Reuters: Neil Hall)
No e-cigarettes ‘on my watch’, Health Minister says
The commercial supply of nicotine for use in e-cigarettes is prohibited in Australia under state and territory legislation.
For Philip Morris’ “smoke-free future” to take off in Australia, the tobacco industry faces an uphill battle.
Patrick Muttart would have to convince Health Minister Greg Hunt, whose “strong, clear, categorical view” is that “this is not something that should occur in Australia.”
Mr Hunt told triple j’s Hack program on Monday that he will never lift the ban on e-cigarettes.
“It’s not going to be happening on my watch, as far as I’m concerned,” Mr Hunt said.
He argued research showed e-cigarettes lead to more smokers of traditional cigarettes.
“There is clear evidence that it’s likely to lead to the uptake of cigarette smoking.”
You can hear more about Patrick Muttart’s life and career and how he responds to judgement in the new ABC podcast How Do You Sleep At Night? You can binge all six episodes now on the new ABC Listen app or subscribe on iTunes.