PMI executive pushes transparent, fact-based approach to resolve health problem

A top executive of Philip Morris International stressed the importance of fact-based approach and transparency in promoting innovative solutions such as reduced-risk nicotine products in the market amid the tide of public skepticism.  

“The bar for us is very much higher to be very transparent. If we know about a new product and what this product can offer to the population at large, this requires more effort on our side.  Transparency is the key,” PMI chief operating officer Jacek Olczak said in a webinar organized by The Economist on June 4, 2020.  

PMI chief operating officer Jacek Olczak
PMI chief operating officer Jacek Olczak
“We have a good objective in front of us…Obviously, this trust-building component is a long journey but is worth taking because we have a great objective to achieve,” he said.

Olczak is among the proponents of smoke-free revolution in PMI which encourages smokers to switch from combustible cigarettes to reduced-risk, smoke-free alternatives such as heat-not-burn tobacco products and electronic cigarettes.  

“It is a very legitimate objective to replace combustible tobacco smoking with better alternatives,” said Olzcak in clarifying PMI’s decision to undertake scientific research on reduced-risk products.

The webinar, “Defying #conventionalwisdom: Promoting a fact-based approach”, discussed the issues of building trust in innovation and using facts and evidence against conventional wisdom.  It was moderated by Christopher Clague, managing editor for Asia and global editorial lead of The Economist.  Aside from Olczak, other panelists were Will Moy, chief executive of UK-based fact-checking organization Full Fact and Poppy Gustafsson, chief executive of AI cybersecurity company Darktrace.

Olczak, who has been with PMI for more than 25 years, said the company has been undertaking numerous research and innovations to address the global public health issue of smoking.  He said these studies are open to everyone and PMI invites interested parties and independent scientists to verify the results.  

“We are very transparent.  We invite scientists to verify our findings. We have generated more than 300 peer-reviewed publications about our science,” he said, adding that PMI is always open to dialogue with scientists and regulators.

Olczak said PMI has a policy of sharing its innovations and research with the public.   “Whether there is good or bad news, you need to disclose it. It is much easier to lose the trust than build the trust,” he said.

PMI launched “Unsmoke Your Mind” campaign in 2019 to open up dialogue and debate around the global public health issue of smoking. It invites interested parties to come together and have a conversation based on the evidence about smoke-free alternatives, rather than relying on misconceptions and misinformation.

Olczak said PMI undertook many studies in search of smoke-free innovations that are good for smokers.  He said there is nothing wrong about industry-sponsored research which has led to many positive developments across sectors such as pharmaceutical and food industries.  He said these studies are subjected to reviews and verified by independent parties.

“In our case, when we are talking about reduced-risk products, we transparently share our methodologies and findings that are subject to review by scientists who are independent. They can go and verify our science,” he said.

“We are often confronted with questions why they should trust our science and I always reply that science doesn’t belong to anybody.  The fact that someone else produced science should not be a reason for ignoring the science.  Don’t discard the science just because it came from a different source. You have to be very transparent, as I believe we are.  It is the only way to move forward,” he said.

He said that by ignoring the findings of an industry-sponsored research, “we are delaying the progress of innovation and the potential good that may come out of the science”.

Olzcak said that every time a new product is introduced, the default reaction of a human being is to have a doubt simply because they don’t understand it.  He recalled instances in history such as when many people opposed technologies such as steam engines, TV antennas and 5G network when they were introduced.

He said technological disruptions will always find critics. “In business, you have always these ‘idea-killer types of phrases’ which usually has emotional load and one of these is ‘I don’t trust you’. It doesn’t really move the conversation forward.  They can kill any project,” he said.

“It is my job as the leader in the organization that rather than stay in this territory of doubt and ‘I don’t trust you’, I think about what I can do for the project. I think this is the philosophy that we try in Philip Morris. This is a universal philosophy that any business undertakes,” he said.

Olzcak said to reduce misinformation, PMI is doing its part to have regular dialogues with stakeholders and policymakers.  “Rather than rely on conventional wisdom because that is the easiest path, our company, PMI, is doing a lot of efforts to talk to various institutions, government agencies. We spent more than three years in dialogue with the Food and Drug Administration in the US,” he said.

“On one hand, people say some of these processes are very slow.  That’s presumably the time they needed to get the comfort around the decision they are making by allowing the product to the market or not which we have to live with.  I think it is quite normal when you are confronted with something new.  You don’t know what it is and you doubt and you don’t have trust.  It is the nature of humans.  Then you need to show empathy and be prepared and try to help them change their opinion and accept your facts,” he said.

“There will always be a doubt because science is never 100-percent conclusive. It is based on the methods and applications which we know today.  This is continuously evolving,” he said. 

Olzcak said this is why PMI continuously undertakes research.  “In our case, our post-market surveillance has been continuously running since we put the first reduced-risk products in the market. We are looking at adverse effects or potential adverse effects which should make us think if these products were properly constructed or not.   As a responsible manufacturer, you need to have this mechanism in place.  This is your duty to continuously manage the product in the marketplace,” he said.

Olzcak also acknowledges that time plays a significant role in public acceptance of a new product.  “You build trust by being transparent. You say what you know, why you know it and how you came up with the conclusion etc. And then you invite the right people to a dialogue.  Then there is obviously the function of time.  Trust has a component of time. You will not build trust just because you did one thing.  You make the declaration and you walk the talk, before people realize what you are doing and what you are talking about. That is the process,” he said.  

Clague, the host of The Economist webinar, said the greatest threat facing innovation today is the reliance on ‘conventional wisdom’, which constrains industries to old methods that have little basis in fact. 

Moy, one of the panelists, stressed the importance of fact-checking amid the deluge of data and information from so many sources which makes it hard who to trust.  “You have an easy choice.  You can be blindly cynical about anything or have blind faith in the things that you want to hear,” he said.

Meanwhile, Gustafsson said artificial intelligence has a huge opportunity to make lives easier.  “At Darktrace, what we are really good at is innovation.  The challenge with innovation is you are doing something that has not been done before. How do you get people’s trust? It is all about show, rather than tell,” she said.

Topics: Philip Morris International , PMI chief operating officer Jacek Olczak
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