At Philip Morris’ lakeside research centre in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, where tobacco plants grow in zen gardens across the ground floor, big talk breaks the tranquility.

“We are on a mission to eliminate cigarettes from this planet,” booms the Marlboro maker’s president of smoke-free products, Stefano Volpetti.

PMI’s stated mission to ditch cigarettes in coming years – smoke-free products will account for more than 50% of the company’s total net revenues by 2025 – means the company has “made the biggest step to improve public health globally” Volpetti boasts.

Well, thanks for that. According to the World Health Organization, tobacco kills more than eight million people each year. Having played a significant role in that global health disaster, PMI now wants to ride in and save us all.

Earlier in the Technovation media event this week, it had compared its range of ‘heat not burn’ devices and vaping gear to the seatbelt. “Innovation is changing the role of the company in society,” explained PMI international communications chief Tommaso Di Giovanni, in front of a slide showing seatbelt inventor Nils Bohlin.

PMI has vested interests in this ‘seatbelt’, of course – smoking is broadly in decline globally and regulation around combustible fags is only getting more stringent, as the UK government looks to go smoke-free in England by 2030. Investing in heat not burn devices mean it can retain its existing tobacco supply chains.

But cynicism aside, PMI changing its spots is undoubtedly a positive thing. By not burning the tobacco – PMI’s Iqos device simply warms it with a mix of water and glycerine – fewer toxicants are absorbed by the smoker. Although the long-term studies are scant, it follows the reduction in harmful substances means related illnesses and deaths drop, too.

“None of us would suck on the pipe of a car and think that’s a good idea,” Volpetti laughs during a conversation at the centre’s Science Square.

“[Heat not burn] is like moving from smoking 20 cigarettes to one cigarette,” he tells The Grocer. “It’s intuitive.” His media advisor takes a quick drag on an Iqos device.

If PMI and its heat not burn Iqos can be the Marlboro of smoking alternatives, Volpetti – who held marketing and VP roles at P&G before heading to the big smoke – and his colleagues have some convincing to do.

Of consumers, that heat not burn, with its high price point – just under £40 for the device – is a better option than vaping, which only requires few quid to get started. Of retailers, that there is sufficient demand for the product, and it’s worth the effort to stock, secure and explain to shoppers. And of authorities, that it is sufficiently safe to allay health fears, especially of youth take-up.

For that latter group, Volpetti sets out a ‘you’re either with us or against us’ argument.

“On this subject there is no neutral position,” he says. “You can be neutral on many things but on this topic you cannot be neutral. If you are neutral on this topic it means you are asking people to continue smoking traditional cigarettes.” 

PMIs transformation is not one of villain into hero (it is not, for example, leaving the patent for its smoking alternative products open as Volvo did with the seatbelt). It’s more a case of ‘Heartbreaking: The Worst Person You Know Just Made A Great Point’.

It wants to benefit itself. But society stands to benefit along the way too. A mission we can all get behind.