A new study from the Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG) has cast doubts on the claims of tobacco company Phillip Morris International (PMI) that they are ‘transforming’.

The research suggests that not only were ‘aspirational’ cigarette shipping targets announced by PMI in fact conservative, but even those modest targets are unlikely to be met.

PMI claims to be transforming and has committed to a ‘smoke-free’ future. Part of this transformation involves minimising sales of combustible products. In 2020, PMI announced an ‘aspirational’ target for reducing cigarette shipments by 2025 to 550 billion cigarette sticks per year.

For this study, published in the journal Tobacco Control, TCRG researchers, in collaboration with Professor Richard Edwards at the University of Otago, New Zealand, set out to understand whether this target was indeed aspirational.

To do this, they used statistical modelling to analyse data taken from PMI's quarterly financial reports 2008-2023. Several different statistical models were used to ensure robustness and all models showed similar findings. They also compared trends to the global retail market for cigarettes, using sales data from Euromonitor.

After carrying out a detailed examination, the researchers found that the 2025 target for reduced cigarette shipments was very conservative as the target already aligned with pre-existing market trends in 2020 when the announcement was made. They also discovered that PMI’s cigarette shipments since the announcement have barely declined at all, meaning the company is currently not on track to meet even its own target.

Before the announcement PMI shipments were falling by approximately 30 billion cigarettes per year, but since then, the decline has only been in the region of 3-4 billion cigarettes per year.

Indeed, modelling from the study suggests that PMI’s shipments in 2025 will be over 10% higher than their announced target, with little projected decline thereafter. This stalling in PMI’s and global cigarette sales is worrying from a public health standpoint and emphasises the need for continued vigilance from policymakers and tobacco control advocates.

A key part of being a truly transformational tobacco company is reducing sales of conventional tobacco products. As the paper contends “data presented here show a company that is not so much transforming, as one retaining a sizeable cigarette business ... where the decline in sales has stabilised, while introducing a second business arm (HTPs) that is a driver of significant extra revenue”. In recent years PMI has expanded its product portfolio by adding newer products, most notably IQOS, a heated tobacco product (HTP) that they claim is ‘smoke-free’, though whether IQOS is truly smoke-free has been questioned in the literature.

In addition to demonstrating the extent to which PMI is not transforming, this paper also provides a robust approach to analysing cigarette sales and shipment trends which is an important aspect of understanding and monitoring the activities of tobacco companies.

John Mehegan, lead author of the paper, notes:

If a tobacco company wanted to move towards being ‘smoke-free’ it would stop producing, shipping and selling cigarettes.

Our findings indicate that PMI are only paying lip service to this goal and are, in reality, not doing anything to get out of the cigarette business at all.

The worrying findings from the study suggest that public health bodies, policymakers and tobacco control advocates need to be wary of industry claims of transformation and need to continue working toward the introduction of effective policy measures targeted at addressing the harms caused by conventional tobacco products.