I have a question for you: how long will the world’s largest tobacco company still be making cigarettes?
That is a question we are trying to answer for ourselves. We do not have the answer yet, but we know it will come at some point.
Our vision to one day stop selling cigarettes is unprecedented for a tobacco company. Many will question our motives based on the distrust surrounding our industry; others will wonder why we would completely change our existing, very profitable business model. The answer to this question is simple, because we can and we should.
We understand the millions of men and women who smoke cigarettes. Those who don’t want to quit are looking for less harmful, yet satisfying, alternatives to smoking. We have the resources to meet that demand and thanks to the imagination and perseverance of many at PMI we have developed breakthrough products that are smoke-free and enjoyable.
We are investing people, resources, time and money to develop further and assess the risk-reduction potential of these new, alternative products to cigarettes.
The tobacco industry means different things for different people. For some it is one of the most reviled industries that exists. And despite tobacco control efforts, the World Health Organization estimates that over a billion people currently smoke cigarettes, and this number is projected to remain largely unchanged by 2025.
"The tobacco industry means different things for different people."
Cigarette smoke contains flavours from the tobacco blend, as well as nicotine that exists naturally in tobacco leaves. It’s these elements in the smoke that consumers enjoy while smoking. However, the very same burning process that releases the tobacco flavors and nicotine also produces over 8,000 chemicals, of which about 1 per cent have been identified as causes or potential causes of smoking-related diseases such as lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, and emphysema.
We have developed smoke-free products that heat tobacco without burning it and accordingly generate much lower levels of harmful chemicals. With over $3 billion invested in R&D to date, we now have a suite of non-combustible products, including e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products, which have the potential to significantly reduce individual risk and population harm compared to continued smoking of cigarettes.
We are leading a full-scale effort to ensure reduced risk products ultimately replace cigarettes – to the benefit of adult smokers and society, our company and shareholders.
This decision has set our company on a new path. Amid the many global trends today, technological innovation is transforming our industry. For commercial, ethical and public health reasons, PMI is leading this transformation. Nearly three million smokers have already converted to our new products, and this is just the beginning.
In prioritising the development and commercialisation of these alternative products, we want to address the health impact of our combustible cigarette business head-on, not only setting our company on a new course, but also making a new contract with society.
Facing a deficit of trust
Let me explain the journey we are taking as a company and the communications challenges we face to build the necessary support to accelerate a smoke-free future. In 2017 we launched our manifesto, Designing a Smoke-Free Future, which we published in conjunction with a refreshed website, PMI.com. This is a very public declaration of our vision for a smoke-free future, promoting a world where every smoker has an opportunity to make a better choice. In fact, we believe the solution of a smoke-free world will benefit all stakeholders, from investors to society. But this will require the transformation of our industry and the disruption of our business models.
The transformation that we are going through goes far beyond the product itself. It is a transformation of who we are and who we collaborate with. Unfortunately, not everybody feels that we have the right to do that.
To some we have no right in society to talk about the solution because we are so much part of the problem. Also, we often run into the misconception that smoking is already sorted. People don’t see many smokers nowadays. They are not hanging around in bars and restaurants in the way they were decades ago.
It is important regulation is updated to allow smokers information on smoke-free products and provide access to these products, but this is not enough. Treating reduced risk products like cigarettes confuses people and does not encourage smokers to try them.
Therefore, we have a duty to engage and activate society. We need to educate on the fact that there is a role for an alternative. It is not just a quit or die conundrum. Harm reduction is a third option to address the health effects of smoking.
That is where communications has become not just something to reiterate the position of a company, not just something of positioning the image of the corporation, but has become something that really needs to be at the forefront of this disruptive, positive change in our industry.
Our commitment to a smoke-free future has started a conversation. We want to ensure there is a debate in society. We recognise and accept that there will always be people who are on a side that says: “you cannot trust the industry”. We know that there is a deficit of trust. Why should you believe what we have to say?
And yet we know that the message is so important that we have to do everything we can to make sure it comes across. We feel we have a duty to advocate for what we believe is right.
Our old communication stance was very much based on a belief that if we stuck our head up we would be shot at. We were not heavily involved in a wider dialogue with society. We did not need explain who we are and where we want to go.
Now, we are moving from the back foot to the front foot, out of the shadows into the world at large. This requires a lot of internal, cultural and behavioural change. We have to start building new relationships, new channels, and working with different partners.
The relationship we have had with society has to move from the marketing of a brand to the embracing of a concept. And that requires a whole different set of messages, a whole different set of tools and a whole different agility to make sure we get traction.
"We are moving from the back foot to the front foot."
Our new website, PMI.com, typifies our intent. Lots of companies go through website revamps, but an exercise to update our website had a profound effect. As a company, it really helped us establish a new tone of voice, clarity and simplicity of language designed to demonstrate our commitment to openness, transparency and honesty. It also represented a significant milestone articulating the company’s shift and vision.
The messaging we use on PMI.com is more than just a style of writing. It is a way of being. We are coming from below zero to earn trust and credibility, and it is important we are plain speaking and transparent. There simply is no time for ambiguity.
One of the first positive impacts of our new website was on our employees. We have more than 80,000 employees.
Now, with the language and the message that we have on the internet, we have given them a greater voice. Employees who are proud of what we are doing now have the ability and opportunity to go and use those messages and talk to their families, talk to their friends, talk to their networks.
Something very significant happened within the organisation when we switched on the new website. It created empowerment through words and purpose, turning a job into much more than the nine to five. We have established a sense that we are collectively part of something very special, pivotal, significant, groundbreaking and extremely important.
We are going through unprecedented change for our people, our business, and our industry. Communications is essentially playing a critical, enabling role for three transformations in one: a transformation of our products; a transformation of our business; and transformation of our relationship with society.
Communications is not just an extra piece of the puzzle here, it is the keystone supporting the necessary behaviour, attitude, and reputational shifts required to position PMI as a trusted partner in delivering a smoke-free world.