Heat-not-burn tobacco: The emerging smoking trend that has experts worried

Google searches for heat-not-burn products in Japan grew by 2,956 per cent between 2015 and 2017, study says. Getty Images

Heat-not-burn tobacco might not be something you’ve heard of yet, but it will be and researchers at San Diego State University predict it will overtake the e-cigarette boom.

It’s a new method of consuming tobacco that claims to reduce or eliminate many of the harmful compounds that are produced with e-cigarettes, as well as combustible products like cigarettes, and it’s gaining popularity and “poised for explosive growth,” researchers say.

READ MORE: Young Canadians know they’re being targeted by e-cigarette marketing: study

Heat-not-burn tobacco is one of the newest tobacco products out there. Users heat leaf tobacco to about 500 degrees Fahrenheit using battery power. This then turns the tobacco into an inhalable aerosol.

Japan is currently the only country where heat-not-burn tobacco products are sold widely, so researchers compared Google search from that country to e-cigarette Google searches in the U.S.

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Click to play video: 'Is the new heat not burn tobacco product the answer to reduce smoking in Canada?'
Is the new heat not burn tobacco product the answer to reduce smoking in Canada?

According to the study, heat-not-burn queries in Japan spiked by 1,426 per cent the first year it was on the market in 2015. Between 2015 and 2017, the number of queries grew by 2,956 per cent. Based on the observed trends, researchers now project that heat-not-burn queries will continue to grow at a similar rate through 2018.

“Heat-not-burn products have quickly become insanely popular,” study co-author Mark Dredze said in a statement. “Two years ago, there were essentially no queries in Japan for heat-not-burn tobacco, but now there are between 5.9 and 7.5 million each month.”

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Researchers also found that the interest in heat-not-burn products is surpassing the interest in e-cigarettes in Japan, which could mean sales of the new product will surpass e-cigarettes.

But what about in Canada?

Heat-not-burn products exist in Canada now, but the popularity is just beginning to grow, says Dr. Matthew Stanbrook, a specialist in respirology at Toronto Western Hospital.

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“It’s in the midst of gaining popularity but it’s still fairly low-key,” he says. “I think its popularity is dwarfed by e-cigarettes at the moment, which has become the trendier thing to switch to if you’re going to use an alternative nicotine delivery system, but it is growing and it’s got big, well-financed tobacco companies behind it.”

LISTEN: Learning more about heat-not-burn tobacco on Calgary Today

According to Philip Morris International, these products “[offer] the possibility of significantly reducing both the number and the levels of [harmful and potentially harmful constituents] HPHCs generated by tobacco products, whilst retaining an acceptable sensory experience for current adult smokers,” their website reads.
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However, don’t be fooled by the claims companies are making about the product as they are misleading, Stanbrook says. It leads the consumer to think that what they are consuming is safe, Stanbrook adds, when objectively it is not a safe product as it still delivers a lot of toxins.

“This is a very concerning product,” he says. “This is really nothing more than a marketing effort on behalf of the tobacco industry to keep people using tobacco products to expand the smoking population and getting people to stay on these products that might otherwise quit.”

The benefit of this type of smoking is that the smoker gets the nicotine from it, as well as less of the other toxic and carcinogenic products, Stanbrook says.

“Note that I say ‘less’ because it certainly does not eliminate all the products,” he says. “In fact, independent research shows that there’s still substantial amounts of some carcinogenic toxins that do come in this product.”

To what extent those levels of harmful toxin can impact one’s health still needs to be explored in research, Stanbrook admits, but it will take some time as it is still a new product on the market.

“No one needs this product,” Stanbrook says. “There are many alternatives smokers have to help them quit smoking that have much more behind them in terms of evidence and data on safety than this new product does.”

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