Philip Morris wants to quit its tobacco habit

Taking a page from the millions of people who make New Year's resolutions to quit smoking, Philip Morris International (PM), which traces its roots to a 19th century London tobacconist's shop, has announced it hopes to kick the habit as well.

In full-page ads in several U.K. newspapers on Thursday, Philip Morris said it aims to quit selling cigarettes in Britain at an unspecified future date, a goal the company admits won't be easy to meet. It plans to launch a website to provide smokers with information on quitting and on alternatives to cigarettes. 

Philip Morris also plans to support anti-smoking efforts of local U.K. governments in areas where smoking rates are highest and to seek approvals to insert information on quitting and switching to alternatives into cigarette packs.

"We believe we have an important role to play in helping the U.K. become smoke-free," wrote Peter Nixon, managing director of PML, in a letter to U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May. "The commitments announced today are practical steps that could accelerate that goal. We recognize that never starting to smoke -- or quitting altogether -- are always the best option."

Critics of the tobacco industry aren't impressed.

"This is the same-old, same-old from a company that's a convicted racketeer," said Erika Sward, assistant vice president for national advocacy at the American Lung Association. "Make no mistake, Philip Morris is still very much in the tobacco and cigarette business as well as the cigar and the smokeless [tobacco] business."

Like other tobacco companies, Philip Morris has been developing alternatives to conventional cigarettes in recent years, such as e-cigarettes. Fans of the technology argue that it can help people quit smoking, a claim tobacco critics say hasn't been definitively proven by scientific studies. 

Indeed, many experts were alarmed by recent data that show increasing use of e-cigarettes by teenagers, according to Robin Koval, the head of the Truth Initiative, an anti-tobacco nonprofit.

"If they really wanted to give up cigarettes ... they could do that tomorrow," said Koval, whose organization was founded in the wake of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement between major U.S. tobacco companies and 46 U.S. states, the District of Columbia and five territories.

Philip Morris sells a technology called iQOS in about two dozen countries. It heats tobacco without burning it, reducing levels of harmful chemicals found in cigarette smoke. The company is currently seeking U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval to sell the device in America. However, former Philip Morris employees and contractors told Reuters of "a number of irregularities involving clinical trials that underpin the tobacco giant's application to the agency."  

The company, which was spun off from Altria (MO) in 2008, rejects the critics' claims.

"Providing less harmful alternatives to smokers who would otherwise not quit is a common-sense approach to public health, embraced by a growing number of experts and health authorities worldwide," the company said. "This initiative in the U.K. demonstrates the global commitment of our company to have cigarettes replaced by science-based smoke-free alternatives as quickly as possible, to the benefit of smokers, public health and society at large."

Both Altria and Philip Morris International sell Marlboro, the world's best-selling cigarette brand. Altria didn't respond to a request for comment on this story.

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