The Quest for the Smoking Unicorn

/ by Noah Charney

I live in an idyllic alpine town (hello, Kamnik, Slovenia), with some of the best fresh water in the world. I run outdoors every day, I eat well. But a confession: Though I’ve never smoked regularly, I thoroughly enjoy a weekly cigarette, considering it a special treat. I do not want to be a walking contradiction. I know that smoking is very bad for me, and it is also a most unappetizing activity for non-smokers around me. A recent The New York Times article cited new studies that indicate that even a single cigarette a day is associated with the same major risk of coronary disease that we think of for pack-a-day smokers. That’s bad news for those of us trying to rationalize, making my one cigarette a week look decidedly less harmless. I’d love to find this unicorn-like fantasy of a way to smoke that will not dramatically increase the likelihood of my premature demise.


And lo, behold my delight when said unicorn seemed to appear on the horizon. It’s (bizarre and unmemorable) name is iQOS. I first saw this product while meeting with Romanian TV producers in Slovenia (as you do). They were all smoking what looked like flashlights. Turned out iQOS has been released in just a smattering of sample countries, but I had to find mine in Serbia. Philip Morris, the world's biggest cigarette company and the tobacco giant behind Marlboro, have reportedly invested over $2 billion, and ten years of research and development, to come up with this alternative to electronic and normal cigarettes. It will be some time before it is out worldwide, while Philip Morris waits, with baited breath and huge sums on the line, to learn if it will catch on (with FDA approval being one of the biggest hurdles).


iQOS promises a whole new way to smoke, with the most important feature (and the one inducing the most skepticism) that it is much healthier than normal cigarettes. Whether it turns out to truly fulfill its quite fantastic promise or not very much still remains to be seen.


iQOS is designed for the smartphone set. It comprises a USB-port chargeable battery pack in which sits a rechargeable wand. The battery pack can fill up the wand around 20 times on a full charge, allowing you to smoke the equivalent of about 20 cigarettes while on the go. Into this wand you insert Heet sticks, iQOS’ proprietary tobacco cigarette (though it’s only a matter of time before imitations pop up), which look like half-length "normal" cigarettes, including a filter. Press a button on the wand, and the Heet is, erm, heated to 300 degrees C, and one lasts for five minutes or around 14 puffs, before the wand must be recharged (and given the chance to cool down). You draw on the Heet’s filter end, as you would when smoking a normal cigarette.


But the trick is this: You are not vaporizing liquid, as in electronic cigarettes, but instead vaping real tobacco cigarettes. There are several benefits to this approach, some I can confirm, others for which the jury is still out. The most appealing claim that would truly make this product a real, live unicorn, is that the low temperature to which vaporizer wand heats the Heets, according to Philip Morris, results in smoke which contains 90% fewer harmful chemicals than the same cigarette lit in the traditional fashion, with an open flame, which rings in at around 900 degrees. Much is riding on whether this claim is proven true in independent, clinical tests. As of writing, the America Federal Drug Administration (FDA) have yet to officially weigh in on the product. Of this, Dr. Judith S. Gordon, a professor of family and community medicine at University of Arizona, said “Although Philip Morris International claims that iQOS is a ‘reduced risk’ tobacco product, a panel of experts convened by the FDA found the evidence presented was too preliminary to support these claims.” But on 12 December 2017, the UK Committee of Toxicity published its conclusions on two heat-not-burn tobacco products, iQOS and a competitor called iFuse. They determined that heated tobacco products reduce HPHCs by “50 to 90%” compared to cigarette smoke. This was the first report from an independent, government-linked body to state that the iQOS approach is indeed less risky than cigarettes. But it is still early days. Other independent tests are underway in Switzerland but will not come out for some time. We may not know for sure, until users have smoked Heets for years, what the long-term effects are. If this is objectively demonstrated to be a healthier way to smoke, then Philip Morris will truly have a game-changer on their hands.


In its test markets, iQOS has proved a hit. Launched in 2015 in Japan, by 2017 it had already claimed 11.9% of the market, with 80% of its users polling that they have “fully or predominately switched” from normal cigarettes. Currently available in 30 markets, around 4 million iQOS units have been sold, according to Jana Jovanovska of Philip Morris. The company’s official statement, from Joshua Gideon Townsend, Philip Morris’ “Manager of Smoke-Free Communication” (which sounds like a metaphor, even if it is not), claims that “Our ambition is to convince all adult smokers to switch to smoke-free products as soon as possible.” That’s a big statement, which would mean the end of Marlboro and Philip Morris’ expansive smoke-filled empire, though they hope to retain the market, simply swapping in smoke-free options. There’s a lot riding on the success of iQOS for the world’s biggest tobacco company.


Beyond health, there are other alleged benefits, which I was eager to test. I am part of a large, but over-looked, population of “social smokers.” I smoke so little that I get a buzz from a single cigarette, meaning I’ve no need for other, more elaborate buzz-inducing intoxicants (hey, I’m a cheap date). I tried e-cigarettes when they first came out, and found them fun to play with, but I never got a buzz from them, so they were no replacement for my weekly cheeky ciggy. For iQOS to appeal to me, it had to produce the desired, mildly-intoxicating effect.


I’ve now lived with iQOS for two months and am delighted with the superficial results.


Even at the lower temperature, the Heets feel like smoking a real cigarette. I get a light buzz. There is a lovely smoky taste to it (not burnt like normal cigarettes, but a warmer, toastier version that offers hints of tea, chocolate and, well, toast). The mouthfeel is identical to that of a normal filter cigarette. But this is a more elegant way forward. The device releases no smoke and has no scent. That means you can smoke anywhere, and you don’t smell as though you’ve smoked. Your mouth does not feel like you've been gargling garbage, as there is no aftertaste. And the mechanism of it appeals to my digital gadget, smartphone aesthetic.


Now the deeper question that would make this product a true unicorn, as opposed to a bright, white horse with a prop horn strapped to its head, is whether independent labs follow the UK Committee of Toxicity and decide that this is, in fact, a healthier way to smoke. Time and objective medical studies will tell whether this way to smoke without smoke is what it claims to be, or if it is a nice, passing fad, a bit of smoke and mirrors.

Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at or by joining him on Facebook.