Industry insiders claim Philip Morris has invested $2bn in developing the iQos, a nicotine-delivering cigarette-substitute. The product is not only 50 times safer than smoking but is tipped to revolutionise the idea of vaping by mimicking the experience of smoking without allowing any particles of burnt organic material or poisonous gases – the main health risks – to contaminate the body.

How does the science work, then? Likewise the contraption? And how do its claims live up to trialling by a smoker in the real world? Let’s begin with the bio-chemistry – which itself requires understanding the difference between smoking and vaping.

Vaping, as you probably know, involves heating a liquid compound until it steams. Among other constituents in this vapour are large nicotine molecules which are inhaled into the lungs and, over the next few hours, distributed around the body by the circulatory system. The net effect is not very much, actually; but if the practice keeps vapers happy, who (apart from the World Health Organisation) is complaining?

Smoking by contrast involves inhaling the by-product of burnt tobacco, a smoke containing carbonised particles and gases as well a smaller variety of the nicotine molecules that vape-steam produces. The latter are absorbed in the windpipe and mouth as well as the lungs; hence the ‘kick’ in the back of the throat, the tickle in the gums and cheeks, and the instant mood-alteration as the little molecules swarm straight into the brain.

What the iQos does, essentially, is to combine the two principles. It heats real, organic tobacco – rather than a liquid compound – to such an extent that the leaf releases its little nicotine molecules in vapour-form. When this is filtered and inhaled, the ‘draw’ replicates the effect of tobacco smoke in the mouth and throat, as well as on the brain. No carbonised particles, no gases and – as with vaping – you get to release some ‘exhaust’.

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Next, the modus operandi, for which you will need a) a USB charging flex; b) a stylish matt-black iQos charger about the size of an old Nokia phone (containing a stylish matt-black iQos ‘holder’ about the size of a pen); and c) an iQos ‘tobacco stick’, which looks like a filtered cigarette with its top two-thirds cut off.

Now ensure that the charger is juiced up – something you shouldn’t need to do more than once a day – before removing the holder from it. Insert a tobacco stick into this holder and activate a little pressure-switch.

After waiting about 15 seconds for a solid green light to appear on the holder, you can begin puffing. You have six minutes or 14 inhalations – whichever expires first – and after that, you’re left with a lukewarm ‘butt’ to eject and dispose of, before returning the holder to the charger, where it gathers strength for the next onslaught.

And now the money question: what’s it like to use? The answer depends, to some extent, on the user. I’m a fairly frequent smoker of roll-ups so thin that filters won’t fit in. But let me try and be objective.

Well, it’s expensive – although mine was a present from a colleague who dropped by the iQos pop-up premises in Wardour Street, London (contact details below). The charger retails at about £80 and each stick will cost you about the same as a proper branded cigarette (which rules out me and my roll-ups). It’s also a fiddly business, but perhaps no more than rolling. And while each drag feels satisfyingly warm on the lips, there are still some sensual snags: an after-taste that is too ‘biscuity’, not as sour as that left by real tobacco smoke; and an unsatisfactorily small exhaust cloud.

However, it seems to me that these obstacles are all surmountable. Economies of scale could bring down the price of both the hard and ‘soft’ ware. Miniaturisation and technological advances will no doubt make later generations of the kit less bulky and more efficient. Some GM wizard will probably work out how to mutate the taste and increase the cloud.

Already, the iQos delivers the physiological after-effects of smoking, perhaps best described as a brief and tingling satiety. And to top it all, the vapour from this virtually odourless device poses less danger to third parties than a walk down any urban road. This could it make it acceptable for indoor use (and I would certainly risk using it in a half-empty cinema or an aircraft toilet).

Given the plusses, provisos and potential, the chances of iQos taking a large share of the surviving market for branded cigarettes would seem more than likely. But this, of course, depends on the legislators and the influence exerted on them by lifestyle lobbyists.

The signs from Australia and leanings of the EU do not bode well. Yet nicotine is not of itself a particularly harmful chemical. There is some evidence that, like caffeine, it improves and protects cognitive ability. It is also the only drug known that has the effect of increasing alertness and reducing anxiety at the same time. But by and large, as with caffeine, one can live a full life with or without it in the system.

The questions facing the do-gooders, then, are these. Can they ban an activity in which people take pleasure on the grounds that it is borderline irrational? Do they hate tobacco so much that they even hate the naturally-occurring chemicals from which it is composed?

Would such a position also compel them to ban useless vitamin supplements, for example; or such irrational activities as, say, entering the lotteries that supply so much of the health charities’ funding? And by what Australian logic could they ban iQos while allowing the regulated smoking and chewing of tobacco?

There’s no telling with these people. Their raison d’etre is to medicalise the human condition and then insist on ‘treating’ it. If they choose to persecute its manufacturer, the iQos will struggle to establish itself as the world-beater it could be. I can only wish Philip Morris well in the venture. And hope they’re planning a roll-up version.

by Michael Finn

For more information about the product and its availability, see the iQos website