Jennifer Motles Svigilsky detests cigarettes. A former human rights lawyer with the United Nations, she recently began focusing her energy on the ambitious — almost unimaginable — vision that today’s 1.1 billion smokers might quit smoking within a generation. Which is how she found herself sitting in front of a crowded room on the second day of SB’18 Vancouver, representing one of the world’s largest cigarette companies, Philip Morris International (PMI).
PMI recently announced that it would be moving away from the cigarette business. Given the industry’s history, it’s no surprise that people doubt the company’s authenticity and whether it will follow through. Motles Svigilsky joined the company three years ago as Social Impact and Sustainability Lead — and shares the notion that the skepticism and lack of trust in cigarette companies is well-deserved.
“There’s a saying, companies don’t change, people do. And I think that’s very true,” she told the audience. “I’ve been in the company for three years, hating cigarettes every day. My boss, who is also here, has been with the company for 24 years. It has been heartwarming for me to see a change on a personal level, where he sees the value in making a shift like this because it is the right thing to do.”
While tobacco has long been seen as an industry to avoid working with and to divest from, Motles Svigilsky decided to work with PMI because she believes that it needs to be rethought if businesses are going to be part of the solution to shift society towards healthier lifestyles and a smoke-free future. “The needed shifts will take time — and the whole sector will need to shift,” she noted.
One of the most common questions she hears is: “If you’re serious about it, why don’t you do it now? Shut down your factories and stop making them?” she told the audience. “Even if we stopped selling cigarettes tomorrow, we only have 15 percent of the market, and others would simply fill that demand. It wouldn’t solve the problem. We need to go further if we want to actually reduce the number of smokers and eventually end smoking.”
She acknowledges that it will be a long journey regardless of when PMI ends its cigarette sales; even if they stopped selling them now, it would still take more than 10 years to effectively eliminate cigarette smoking.
“Not all of the parts of the solution are in place yet,” she said. But with a sense of responsibility within PMI and other cigarette companies, if they start working to be part of the solution, “we’re in a place where we can actually fix this.”
So, what is PMI actually doing to end smoking within a generation?
In the short term, the company is creating products that are less damaging to smokers’ health than cigarettes or that help smokers quit. While PMI is not the first to offer alternatives to cigarettes, Motles Svigilsky suggested they’re looking at them a bit differently.
Many who have tried nicotine patches or gum end up going back to cigarettes, partly because of how your body consumes nicotine differently through those processes compared to burning tobacco in cigarettes. Unfortunately, burning tobacco in cigarettes is precisely what releases many of the harmful chemicals. What’s more, about half of the tobacco in cigarettes is burned off rather than delivering nicotine to the smoker.
PMI’s R&D teams saw these as areas of exploration to design new products that could help wean smokers off of nicotine to help them quit for good, dramatically reduce or eliminate the harmful chemicals associated with cigarette smoking and using less tobacco.
PMI now offers a device that looks similar to a pen that uses tobacco more efficiently than a conventional cigarette since it does not burn the tobacco, but instead heats it in a precise and controlled way for nicotine release, while avoiding the other many harmful chemicals generated by smoking cigarettes. Of course, this is only the beginning.
“You not only need the right products, you need people to use them,” Motles Svigilsky said. “So, we are offering those types of products but also developing new ones to help people in different markets – to meet different tastes and needs in different countries.”
PMI estimates that as many as 5 million people have quit globally, in part due to their efforts and new product offerings since they changed their mission to focus on ending smoking.
“We’re marketing these products to smokers. We’re not trying to attract more people to smoke, we’re trying to convert our customers to other product lines,” Motles Svigilsky added. “[In the short term,] we need to provide alternative choices to smokers who cannot quit [or cannot quit yet].”
In the long term, she says, “we may not even be in the nicotine business,” but she remains confident that the company will be able to figure out how to transform its business to remain profitable regardless of the path they take. In response to a follow-up question on this, she assures the audience that there are no plans right now for PMI to shift into the cannabis market, either.
Beyond products — and why the transition to a smoke-free future will take so long
Motles Svigilsky assured the audience that PMI is going beyond products and considering the company’s entire value chain, and how it might be affected by the transition to a smoke-free future.
“There are countries like Malawi that base their GDP — their entire economic success — on tobacco,” she said. The industry has to consider how they can support countries such as Malawi through the transition and ask questions about effective ways forward. For example, does PMI need to work with farmers to help them transition away from tobacco, or from agriculture altogether? “We need to make this transition as smooth as possible — not only for our company but for everyone, every family.”
Again, she stressed the importance of working together: “The only way to address this properly is through collaboration.” Companies will need to work with local people and with organizations familiar with the local communities to understand what they need, what crops could be viable alternatives, what their access to water is and will be in the future, etc.
“This presents a two-fold challenge,” Motles Svigilsky continued. “We have to anticipate impacts as much as possible, but our options are limited by lack of trust. Many groups don’t want to talk to us because they doubt that we’re genuine. It sort of brings full circle why I’m speaking at Sustainable Brands — there are so many brilliant brains here that can help us satisfy stakeholders to the point that we can collaborate and move this forward.”
In regards to the health-related impacts and externalities associated with PMI’s products, Motles Svigilsky noted how helpful it would be if the company was able to work with organizations in the health industry. Unfortunately, the cigarette industry has degraded trust to the point where it is difficult for PMI to be able to sit down with such organizations to discuss how they can help to address some of the problems they have caused.
“I have dreams that we can eventually partner with leading health institutions to advance cancer research,” she said. “But for now, we are still selling cigarettes, and that means there is still a portion of society that will not talk to me, and it is very difficult to create synergy without those conversations.”
Of course, changes within the company will also need to occur. One audience member noted that “there is something to be said for companies that decide on a purpose and share what that is,” because for example, that attracts different people into the company and can slowly shift company culture. Motles Svigilsky agreed, adding that internal shifts need to involve both top-down and bottom-up elements. The company’s leadership has to act on its purpose by considering its vision in every decision they make and initiatives they launch; and a company’s new purpose and vision must also be a core consideration for new hires, to help drive bottom-up change as new people join the team. She says this will ultimately help change people within the company and help create the necessary cultural shift on multiple levels.
She looked back to her work with the UN; something she admires about how the UN drives collaboration is how people are brought to the table with completely different opinions but a shared end goal and find a way to create positive change together without necessarily agreeing.
She also believes that regulation will need to play a role. Even if PMI does its best, it cannot control its competitors. As such, regulations are important to reduce risks to the public regardless of industry leadership or lack thereof, Motles Svigilsky said, and concerned stakeholders need to push regulation to move the whole industry forward in terms of both products and how they are marketed.
Notably, some market segments of nicotine consumption are actually growing due to the increase of vaping and “Juuling” (Juul is a brand of discreet vaporiser pens) — namely among women, who were harder to attract to cigarettes, and middle- and high-school students — as an audience member pointed out. Motles Svigilsky stressed the importance in avoiding a shift backwards in normalization. After working hard to convince people that smoking is not a good or healthy thing to do, we must be careful not to lose progress by normalizing new technologies that pose similar health risks.
“What flavors are being made and who are they targeting?” she asked as an example. “Flavors like gummy bear are probably targeting much younger consumers and may need to be regulated more strictly so that people are aware — as they need to be — of the health realities [of these products] and age groups that should be avoiding [them].”
Why should anyone trust PMI, or believe it is being honest?
While the audience thanked Motles Svigilsky for her candor and willingness to engage in a Q&A, it was clearly still difficult for them to trust PMI as a company and believe that it will continue to pursue its new vision for a smoke-free future.
“Don’t trust us. I don’t think you should,” Motles Svigilsky agreed. “I think actions speak louder than words. Inform yourself on what you think we should be doing, what we are doing, and how we are doing it.”
She later reiterated the sentiment in respect to the health and safety information of their new products. Given the industry’s history of false and coercive ‘health’ information, PMI is very conscious of the importance of transparency as it makes this transition; the company is publishing all of its health and safety information — including tests and data — on its website.
“Don’t trust our science. Take what we’ve made available, take it to someone else — wherever you want — and get them to test it. Whoever you trust should test it,” Motles Svigilsky said, urging the audience to hold PMI accountable and continue to push the industry forward. “I want people to understand that we need to work together to create a paradigm shift.”
What lessons can PMI share with companies in other harmful industries, such as oil and gas, pesticides or guns?
“There’s so much to learn, still — what lessons can I share now?” was Motles Svigilsky’s initial answer. Primarily, she added, the importance of transparency is essential. “Understand the harms your company has done, [and own it]. That will go a long way in building trust back up and attracting collaborators to help achieve your new vision and goals.”