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Is IQOS Better for Health and the Environment Than Traditional Cigarettes?

March 10, 2024
IQOS originals. Photo credit: iqos.com

Since its launch in 2014, I Quit Ordinary Smoking (IQOS) has garnered attention as an alternative to traditional combustible cigarettes. Manufactured by Philip Morris International (PMI), the leading international tobacco company, founded in 1847, IQOS is marketed as a heated tobacco product (HTP) rather than burned and claims to cause less harm to both users and the environment than traditional cigarettes.

IQOS heatsticks, Heets and Terea, contain nicotine, which is an addictive substance. While it has lower amounts of harmful chemicals than regular cigarettes, it is not without environmental and health risks.

As its usage surges in Egypt and globally, with 19.7 million users, a question arises: Is IQOS truly a better option for both human health and environmental sustainability when compared to combustible cigarettes?

One significant aspect to consider when thinking of IQOS is the chemical composition and emissions associated with it which can be harmful to the environment and humans.

As reported by BMJ journals, there are more than 99 percent and 95 percent reductions in gas phase radicals and nitrogen oxide emissions in IQOS, in comparison to traditional cigarettes, and these gasses are directly related to air pollution and lung damage.

Additionally, there is a high presence of other harmful compounds, such as phenols and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are linked to respiratory problems, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, suggesting potential pyrolysis, which is the release of potentially harmful compounds into the air.

Using IQOS indoors with ventilation does not make it better, as according to a study by PubMed, it significantly affects air quality, emitting harmful compounds and raising concerns about indoor air pollution.

Meanwhile, IQOS aerosols demonstrate a notable reduction of 70 percent to 97 percent in carbonyl levels compared to conventional cigarette smoke. Carbonyl compounds include harmful substances such as formaldehyde, a carcinogen that can cause cancer, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

Carbonyl compounds also include acetaldehyde and acrolein, which can irritate the respiratory system and contribute to the development of respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).

Another environmental hazard associated with IQOS is improper disposal. Research highlights that improper disposal poses a risk of metal leachates releasing heavy metals into the environment, potentially contaminating soil and water sources, and endangering aquatic life and human health.

Adding salt to the wound, IQOS production involves manufacturing processes that have environmental impacts, as it is a device that requires batteries, which have environmental considerations, including resource extraction, energy consumption, and disposal challenges.

There are a few epidemiological studies on the health effects of IQOS. One independent Australian study conducted in 2019, suggested potential negative impacts on respiratory health, including lung physiology, bronchial cells, allergic rhinitis, and asthma.

A study by the American Journal of Physiology-Heart and Circulatory Physiology concluded that HTP generates primary and secondary discharges of harmful substances, such as benzene and tobacco-specific nitrosamine, which are associated with an increased risk of hypertension, cardiac inflammation, and reduced circulation of angiogenic cells.

Additionally, HTP causes increased oxidative stress and respiratory infections, and reductions in total cholesterol, C-reactive protein, platelets, and white blood cells, according to NCBI.

These environmental footprints contribute to the overall environmental impact of IQOS usage and pose potential health effects, offsetting some potential benefits in reducing air pollution and littering associated with cigarette smoking, and necessitating further research and caution in its use.

While IQOS emits fewer harmful chemicals than combustible cigarettes, it is imperative to recognize that it still contains nicotine, an addictive substance, with long-term health implications that remain unclear.

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