Philip Morris International’s UK&I MD Christian Woolfenden has made a career in life’s vices. But he believes the things we love don’t have to harm us

Marlboro maker Philip Morris International (PMI) is ditching the ciggies. In 2016, it set an ambition for smoke-free products to account for more than 50% of total net revenue by 2025.

But even the company’s UK & Ireland MD Christian Woolfenden needed some convincing about the idea of calling it quits on cigarettes.

“When I got the call, I was like: no thank you,” he tells me at PMI’s London headquarters in Hammersmith. He’d never heard of Iqos– PMI’s heated tobacco device – and initially felt the smoke-free future claim felt “a little bit like a greenwashing type of thing”.

But speaking to a friend who worked in the NHS warmed him to the idea. They told him, he recalls: “If anybody can do it, it’s those guys. If you look at government, the NHS, we’ve been at it for years and made good progress, but not enough. They’re the ones that have to drive it.”

There is, of course, cynicism around a company that has sold cigarettes for more than a century claiming such a dramatic change of course.

“You’ve got to walk the talk,” Woolfenden says. But “credibility is coming through because of the numbers”.

Smoke-free or ‘reduced risk’ products – meaning heated tobacco, vapes and oral nicotine pouches – now make up 35% of PMI’s revenue, up from 30% last year and 25% the year before that. Some markets are way past that. Japan, for example, is at 75%.

Name:  Christian Woolfenden

Best piece of advice you’ve ever received: “It’s all about the people, stupid.” The team and culture are what counts above all else.

Business world idol: He’ll hate me for saying it, but Patrick Kennedy, previous CEO of Paddy Power. Amazing strategist and a massive empowerer of people.

Best perk of the job: Meeting people whose lives have changed forever, for the better, thanks to Iqos.

Most embarrassing professional moment: Launching limited-edition packs of Ariel for Wimbledon. Made to look like a grass court and was invisible on shelf. Had to recall the lot.

When you’re not working: Anything and everything outdoors and in water.

UK figures aren’t shared, but the company is “well on track” for its target, and UK smoking rates are in decline: the latest ONS adult smoking rate is the lowest on record, at 12.9%. With its range of alternatives, PMI hopes to help those remaining to kick the habit.

Meanwhile the government has its own smoke-free target: for adult smoking prevalence to fall to 5% or less by 2030. It is way off course.

“Run rate says it’s not going to be hit. That looks pretty clear,” Woolfenden says.

And analysis by Cancer Research UK says rates would need to drop around 70% faster. At current rates, it could take another decade.

With the smoker base already aware of the dangers and feeling the cost, “those are two major levers that clearly aren’t having enough of an impact. Something else needs to happen,” Woolfenden says.


Source: PMI

Chicken and egg

Is vaping that “something else”? The market is certainly booming and, as a tool to quit smoking, e-cigarettes have secured the approval of government and health bodies.

Meanwhile heated tobacco devices – PMI’s main focus with its Iqos range – are relatively unknown and rarely mentioned when it comes to smoking cessation. Small numbers of users means little attention or independent scientific studies.

“There’s always a bit of a chicken and egg,” Woolfenden says.

There is a significant cohort, he adds, that have tried vaping, not liked it, and returned to cigarettes. PMI’s own studies show Iqos has a higher conversion rate for smokers versus vaping globally.

“If you’ve smoked 20 Marlboro a day for the past 30 years, the fruity flavoured, brightly coloured plastic thing doesn’t work for you,” he says.

Raising awareness is difficult as promotion is restricted. The government is currently consulting on informative inserts in packs of cigarettes, with the wider sector hoping inserts will suggest alternatives rather than echo on-pack health warnings.

“I am drawn to the things people enjoy” 

“For targeted messaging, it doesn’t get any better than the inside of a packet,” Woolfenden says. “I’d like to think there’s the chance to say there are other alternatives than vaping.” The chance they could say ‘Try Iqos’ is admittedly probably quite low, he smiles.

For now it’s word of mouth. There are retailers who have “converted the whole village” to Iqos, but “how do you scale that?” Woolfenden says.

As to disposables – an area PMI plays in with its Veeba device – they are “very easy to sell”. “You don’t have to explain them, you can have masses in a small shelf space, great margin.” On the other hand, Iqos requires explanation, says Woolfenden. “This is what it is. This is how it works. This is why it’s reduced risk. For a retailer it’s a longer journey. It’s a more complex journey,” he adds.

IQOS store

Source: PMI

Iqos has also been pricey in comparison – a turn-off for consumers and retailers – but that is changing. Where early devices have retailed for £79, the entry-level model of the latest Iqos Iluma range (which launched this week) is £39: just more than the price of two packs of cigarettes.

So retailers can “now interrupt that journey with a value discussion, which you couldn’t do previously”, Woolfenden says. And for consumers “the out-of-pocket feels like it’s manageable”. Combined with improved reordering and speedy delivery for retailers, it feels like a tipping point, Woolfenden says.

Pleasure principle

Woolfenden’s career to date has followed a bit of a pattern: booze, gambling and cigarettes. “All the vices. You’ve missed out washing powder,” he adds.

But while he is “drawn to the things people enjoy” – having spent five years at Paddy Power as CMO and retail MD and serving as global brand director at Bacardí, as well as several roles at Procter & Gamble – what they enjoy doesn’t have to harm them, he adds.

“When PMI talked about Iqos, it took me back to my days at Bacardí where people had just started to think about zero alcohol. I remember thinking, how amazing would it be if you could offer people the gin & tonic experience without the downsides?” he says.

Back then there wasn’t “enough enthusiasm” for it. But there has been a boom in low & no alcohol in recent years. A similar phenomenon is coming to smoking.

“People who smoke, they smoke because they love it. And they know it’s bad for them and they know it costs them a lot of money,” Woolfenden says. “If we can offer them that joy, but without the same level of downsides, then that would be phenomenal.

Is that a pipe dream though?

“We will crack it,” he says. “I do think we’ll get a million people to quit and then I think we’ll be well beyond a million quite quickly. We will get there.”