The CSO of the world’s largest tobacco company doesn’t smoke. Can she get Philip Morris’s millions of customers to quit too? 

PMI CSO Jennifer Motles has never smoked, and she wants the rest of the world to stop too.

“I hate cigarettes,” Jennifer Motles, the chief sustainability officer at the world’s largest tobacco company, Philip Morris International, told me over the phone this week. But that admission is remarkably on brand for PMI, a company that, since 2016, says it is committed to a future without smoking. 

By 2025, PMI wants to be a majority “smoke-free” business, replacing cigarettes with IQOS, the company’s line of vape products. Sales of PMI’s “heated tobacco” products made up 29% of company revenues in 2021; 72% of those customers were, according to PMI’s latest annual report, cigarette quitters.

It’s easy to be skeptical of PMI’s commitment to that goal, and indeed I am. PMI has set no deadline for when it wants 100% of sales to come from smoke-free products and, although not all vape users are former smokers, PMI’s increased sales of IQOS products currently rely on a stream of smokers quitting cigarettes, which means it will need smokers for years to come.

But for Motles, who says she has never smoked cigarettes or vaped, the audacity of PMI’s ambition is what makes her role as CSO so appealing. 

“It’s really when you make companies that are not good, where you feel so uncomfortable with the status quo, then you really need to change it that you can see impactful and meaningful change happen,” Motles says.

The area where PMI can have the most impact, according to the company’s latest materiality report, is on the health of its users, i.e. by helping smokers stop smoking. (See this previous issue of Impact Report for a skeptic’s take on materiality reports.)

You might think the easiest way to do that would be for PMI to stop selling cigarettes and force a consumer change but—much like how the world isn’t ready to quit oil—Motles can list a litany of reasons why affecting a paradigm change isn’t as easy as going cold turkey. 

For one, PMI has tobacco farmers whose livelihoods could be upended if one of the world’s largest cigarette makers suddenly cut its orders. Even PMI’s slow-burning shift away from cigarettes and toward vapes, which consume roughly 50% of the tobacco volume, leaves farmers confronting a major loss.

For Motles, that poses a challenge in her role as CSO, where she has to consider the ESG issues confronting the value chain PMI’s quitting—cigarettes—as well as the one it’s entering—vapes. Although there are synergies between the two, like the impact on the livelihoods of tobacco farmers or factory workers, vapes pose issues that aren’t present in cigarettes.

How PMI sources the metal heating components for its vape pens and how the company ensures the disposable cartridges are recycled, for example, are new issues. To that end, in some markets, PMI has implemented a Take Back initiative, where it provides IQOS consumers with postage bags that they can use to return spent cartridges to the company to recycle them. 

But for all the changes PMI is making, can a company whose business is based on addiction ever truly be a source of good? Motles says the answer is a relative yes. 

“You have a cigarette company that is willing to stop making cigarettes and use its know-how…to create nicotine-containing products that are significantly less harmful than smoking,” Motles says, adding that model is “absolutely” better than a cigarette company that only plans to keep selling cigarettes (which are, as a reminder, legal).

Motles thinks ESG-prone investors will see the good in PMI’s ambition and that the market will reward the company for its efforts. If so, then the rest of the cigarette industry might play along, too.

“As I said before, the intention here is not just to make PMI smoke-free. It is really to create this paradigm shift where the rest of the industry follows our lead because they understand that this is also the right thing to do, or because they don’t have a choice,” she said.

Eamon Barrett


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