Two of the world's largest tobacco companies are at odds over whether a new tobacco product being launched in New Zealand is illegal.
This comes after the identity of a mysterious tobacco product, which prompted concern on the part of a University of Otago academic, was revealed as a product called Iqos.
The Philip Morris product heats tobacco, rather than burning it. The Ministry of Health says it has contacted Philip Morris "in relation to activities relating to the Iqos product".
A member of the public, who declined to be named, said they were at a launch party for the product in Auckland last month. There was free alcohol at the event, which he said was run by marketing agency Brand Spanking and another company. People were educated about how to use the product and given free samples.
After a story on the then-mystery product was published in the Otago Daily Times yesterday, British American Tobacco (BAT) head of legal and external affairs Saul Derber made contact to say it was not behind the product.
Derber confirmed the product was Iqos and said it was BAT's belief it was illegal in New Zealand.
He pointed to the Ministry of Health website, which stated "heat not burn" products were considered tobacco products for oral use, and their sale was prohibited under the Smoke-free Environments Act 1990.
BAT had a similar product on sale in Japan but did not have plans to launch it in New Zealand because it was not legal under New Zealand law, Derber said.
He questioned the way the product was launched and a job advertisement that stated it would be marketed throughout New Zealand. He would not be drawn over whether such activity breached rules banning tobacco advertising.
"All I can tell you is that we wouldn't do that."
He said the mystery product was not the "Voke Inhaler" mentioned as a possibility in yesterday's ODT. It was not yet approved for sale in New Zealand and had recently been sold to a company not connected to BAT.
Philip Morris responded late yesterday, saying the section of the law referenced on the ministry's website was put in place in the 1990s, to address American-style chewing tobacco.
"It has absolutely nothing to do with heated tobacco or e-cigarettes," a spokesman said.
"Our product fully complies with all relevant legislation in New Zealand."
The company was launching the product in New Zealand because of widespread interest in alternatives to conventional combustible tobacco products, the spokesman said.
Iqos could help the Government's push to a smokefree 2025 goal, he said.
It was available in more than a dozen markets and in Japan alone, more than one million smokers had quit cigarettes and used Iqos. The man who was at the Auckland launch of Iqos, at The Wharf, said people were given the opportunity to try the product, which involved putting half-sized tobacco cigarettes in a device that heated but did not burn tobacco.
The man at the launch party likened the product to a cross between e-cigarettes, which involve heating liquid often containing nicotine, and normal cigarettes and said there were mixed responses from those who tried it.
Ministry of Health tobacco control programme manager Jane Chambers said in an emailed statement the ministry was aware of the product launch.
"The ministry is concerned with any activity that actively promotes the sale or notifies the availability of any tobacco product.
"The ministry has contacted Philip Morris in relation to activities relating to the Iqos product."
She said if the product contained tobacco, it was potentially illegal to market it at events and "educate" people about it.
The revelations come after a job advertisement sought 20 people to work for "experiential marketing" agency Brand Spanking and be trained regarding a new tobacco industry product.
Brand Spanking did not reply to follow-up questions yesterday. Director and creative strategist Mark Pickering said in an email on Wednesday night the agency "does not discuss client work with the media".