//Imperial talks tobacco-free nicotine pouches with Snusforumet
Posted 29/06/2021 9:33am
Grant O’Connell, Head of Tobacco Harm Reduction Science at Imperial Brands, speaks to Snusforumet about recent scientific data helping to substantiate our tobacco-free wheat fibre nicotine pouch products.
Snusforumet: Why did you conduct this scientific assessment of nicotine pouches?
Grant O’Connell: Tobacco harm reduction (THR) products not only need to be deemed as satisfying alternatives to combustible tobacco by adult smokers, they also have to be scientifically substantiated as harm reduced, pass regulatory scrutiny and ideally be advocated by public health bodies to drive consumer confidence and trust.
Many aspects of scientific research play a fundamental role in this, from initial product characterisation studies right through to post-market monitoring. Other elements, including robust stewardship and manufacturing standards – plus continued technological innovation – are also crucial. Collectively, these are all important to helping facilitate THR on a meaningful level.
As a responsible manufacturer, we believe Next Generation Products (NGPs) like our tobacco-free oral nicotine pouches have an important contribution to make to the public health concept of THR, and this research programme reinforces our commitment to support this promising category.
Snusforumet: What’s involved in this sort of assessment? How does it work? What are the factors that go into the decision to carry out such an assessment?
GoC: We apply a rigorous Scientific Assessment Framework to all our NGPs, with elements including product characterisation science, biological science, clinical science, population health science, and perception and behavioural science. All our NGPs proceed through this framework in order to assess and validate their THR potential.
Many factors influence the decision to scientifically demonstrate the THR potential of a particular NGP. In this particular case, the scope of the project stemmed from a desire to focus on our commitment to contribute to the growing body of scientific evidence of this nascent category possessing substantial THR potential.
The research also helps us further establish the category’s position on the ‘continuum of risk’ (what we at Imperial term the ‘relative risk scale’), which categorises each NGP’s THR potential based on current scientific evidence relative to combustible tobacco.
Finally, we hope our data will contribute towards creating risk proportionate regulatory framework for the tobacco-free oral nicotine pouch category to thrive.
Snusforumet: What is the most important or noteworthy “Line of Evidence” (or finding behind it)? Why?
We wanted to present the data in the form of various lines of scientific evidence because we essentially wanted to build a case to help support the products and the category.
While certain research areas – like human clinical studies – are often deemed the most media worthy as they provide ‘real world’ data, we firmly believe it’s the totality of the evidence within the scientific assessment that proves most compelling THR evidence for our tobacco-free oral nicotine pouches.
That said, Line of Evidences V and VIII are crucial supplements to the pre-clinical and clinical data that sometimes capture the headlines. For instance, an NGP could demonstrate vast harm reduction potential right through to clinical trials – but if no adult smoker found it a satisfying alternative to combustible tobacco, and did not choose to use the NGP instead of continuing to smoke, its true THR value would be diminished.
Equally crucial is that these products aren’t attractive to non-smokers or vulnerable populations – something that’s always front of mind when it comes to NGP development and marketing.
Snusforumet: Why is tobacco harm reduction important to Imperial?
We desire to make a meaningful contribution to THR through our broad NGP portfolio where regulatory environments foster and encourage such innovations and adult smokers have access to a diverse portfolio of high quality brands and products.
While the best course of action any adult smoker can take to improve their health is to stop smoking and nicotine consumption completely, many are uninterested or unwilling to take this step. Imperial Brands agrees with the growing number of public health bodies and regulators who advocate that adult smokers transitioning to NGPs remains the next best course of action.
The increase in awareness of the risks associated with smoking tobacco and the advent of NGPs through technological advances has resulted in increased adult smoker demand for these products, as adult smokers seek alternate ways to consume nicotine but without burning tobacco leaf.
Snusforumet: What more can be done by Imperial or others to help promote harm reduction policies/approaches?
Even though the concept has been around since the ‘70s, many people are still unaware of THR or the important impact it could have on population level health outcomes when applied to smoking tobacco – particularly since the rise of NGPs in recent years. There are also numerous parties – including some public health bodies like the World Health Organisation – who, for various reasons, are either dismissive (with the ‘quit or die’ paradigm still advocated) or actively hostile to both THR and NGPs. Inaccurate media reporting and some poor science don’t help either.
Perhaps the biggest single issue surrounds continuing (mis)conceptions of NGPs by not only the general public but also regulators and even adult smokers and NGP users themselves. For instance, it’s surprising to learn from focus groups involving adult smokers – not to mention public health and medical experts – that many still consider nicotine to be the major cause of smoking-related diseases. This illustrates how much evidence-based education to adult smokers, but also healthcare professionals and regulators, still needs to take place.
A ‘back to basics’ approach to NGP advocacy rooted in a more comprehensive societal understanding of nicotine would enable us to better explain the concept of THR and its public health benefits.
Finally, we need to continue to work tirelessly through our transparent scientific research and NGP advocacy to educate, otherwise this significant public health opportunity won’t fulfil its potential… or may even be lost entirely.
Snusforumet: What do you say to critics that claim tobacco harm reduction is some sort of “trojan horse” by tobacco companies to get profit from people’s addiction to nicotine?
We believe in adults’ right to choose to consume nicotine in whatever product format they choose. We need to work with all manner of stakeholders to successfully raise adult smoker awareness of THR, while also providing them with the choice to affordably access NGPs that enable them to enjoy nicotine, but in a substantially less harmful manner.
From a personal perspective, the colleagues I work with in our science, innovation and NGP-focused functions – and beyond! – are incredibly passionate about creating and refining satisfying new nicotine products for adult smokers, who would otherwise continue to smoke, for the purpose of making a meaningful contribution to THR.
Snusforumet: What do you say to critics who say one should never trust science carried out by a tobacco company? Do you understand people’s scepticism? How do you answer it?
We understand the scepticism. However, Imperial Brands has invested – and continues to invest – substantial resources in NGP development and the scientific substantiation underpinning our commercial choices. We have state-of-the-art science and innovation facilities, and are committed to full transparency in conducting high quality scientific research studies. For example, we invite critique of our science through the process of peer-review in international scientific journals, and via the regular presentation of our research at international conferences.
Meanwhile, our partnerships with leading scientific organisations and commitment to the development of internationally recognised NGP standards help us engage with global regulatory authorities, as we campaign to ensure high product standards are applied across all NGP categories. We’ve also increased the amount of external communication around our science, with a website, blog and social media to help further share and engage around our knowledge and research findings.
Our tobacco heritage means we’re experts in nicotine and tobacco science – as well as an increasingly diverse array of expertise from adjacent scientific and innovation fields – which certainly helps us when it comes to translating adult smokers’ demands into the development of satisfying next generation potentially harm reduced alternatives to cigarettes.
Finally, we firmly believe frank and mature discussions about nicotine and NGP science best serves the wider facilitation of THR – with openness, transparency and collaboration key to support those adult smokers, who would otherwise continue to smoke, on their journeys to transition away from combustible tobacco.
Snusforumet: What effect do you hope your findings might have on regulators currently considering different regulatory regimes for nicotine pouches?
We believe that our data alongside the published scientific literature clearly demonstrates tobacco-free oral nicotine pouches have significant THR potential. We hope our findings continue to build on the excellent base of scientific evidence laid by others – and summarised here – and that each successive study continues to help build advocacy and inspire further research.
We also hope these findings will help our colleagues in markets engage more effectively around the category and the necessary risk proportionate regulatory framework required to maximise the public health benefit of tobacco-free oral nicotine pouches.
From a broader THR perspective, the growth in popularity of tobacco-free oral nicotine pouches among adult smokers will serve to more widely promote the role of science and NGPs in helping to facilitate THR – and that can only be a good thing for adult smokers and wider public health.
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