At the gates of the Papastratos tobacco factory, a bevy of glamorous hostesses dressed in identical black and wielding clipboards usher guests through.

A helicopter whirrs overhead while G4S security guards line the hill winding down towards Athens in the distance.

Inside a cavernous marquee filled with politicians and captains of industry, André Calantzopoulos, the chief executive of tobacco giant Philip Morris International (PMI) is preparing to unveil the future. "This revelation will change all that we know about smoking," he announces to the expectant crowd.

The revelation in question is a small plastic capsule into which tobacco sticks are inserted and heated to 350C, allowing users to take puffs.

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In theory (according to PMI's own research) this reduces the risks of smoking by up to 95 per cent. What this means for people's health in the long run, however, remains a point of contention.

Tobacco is gambling big on the rise in popularity of these devices, known as IQOS (I quit ordinary smoking).

At the Papastratos factory last week PMI announced it would become its second factory to cease production of ordinary cigarettes and instead churn out only the IQOS tobacco sticks, known as HEETS.

Since 2008 the company has spent more than US$4.5 billion on scientific research, production and development of IQOS and related products.

Chances are you will never have seen an IQOS.

The crucial difference between e-cigarettes and the IQOS is that the former contains no tobacco at all, while the latter is made up almost exclusively of it - and offers an experience far closer to smoking.

As a tobacco product PMI is banned from advertising it.

At present there are several IQOS stores selling the devices in Britain, all in London's trendier districts.

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As with their counterparts in Athens the outlets are designed more like the Apple Store or a Nespresso outlet than a traditional tobacconist.

The walls are bleached wood and customers are encouraged to "create your own IQOS experience" with a range of brightly coloured accessories. In the UK a starter pack (containing 10 packs of HEETS tobacco sticks) costs £121.50 ($234).

It is difficult not to be left with the impression that the shops are designed to position IQOS as a trendy lifestyle brand.


LIGHTING UP
5m: The number of heated tobacco users worldwide
350C: The temperature tobacco sticks are heated to
$5.8bn: The amount spent by PMI developing IQOS
$234: Cost of an IQOS starter pack including sticks.
95pc: Risk reduction over traditional smoking, according to PMI.


The Athens branch is on a prestige stretch of high street sandwiched between shops selling Rolex and Bulgari watches and staffed by young trendy millennials.

Tobacco consumption is falling in Greece but in the latest survey conducted last year 27.1 per cent of the population still admitted they were either regular or casual smokers.

By the end of 2018, according to PMI staff, its aim is to produce 20 billion tobacco sticks a year.

PMI - and other tobacco firms investing in similar technologies - insist this is all for the common good. But can the company that once sold us Marlboro Man really now be putting public health over profit?

According to Calantzopoulos, who was appointed CEO in 2013, PMI and its stablemates deserve the chance to rehabilitate their reputations.

"This rhetoric goes back to the Seventies and Eighties," he says. "I think the world has changed in 40 years and companies do change as well. I don't ask people to trust. I ask people to judge on facts and evaluate scientific assessment of this product."


So what are the health implications of a product an estimated five million people worldwide are already using?

Earlier this month Public Health England (PHE) published its key findings on so-called heated tobacco products: IQOS, Glo, produced by British American Tobacco, and Ploom TECH by Japan Tobacco International.

The devices differ from e-cigarettes as they still use tobacco and therefore in theory allow the big companies a greater share of the profits.

The PHE study found that compared to cigarettes the products were "likely to expose users and bystanders to lower levels of particulate matter and harmful and potentially harmful compounds", but the extent of the reduction varied between studies.

It also admitted a dearth of independent research on the health impact - out of 20 studies included in its review, 12 were funded by tobacco manufacturing companies themselves.

In December the committee on toxicity (an advisory panel to the British Government) released its own independent findings into heated tobacco products.


The committee admitted the devices produce "a number of compounds of concern", including some that can cause cancer. It also expressed concern young non-smokers might start using the products and that they could become a gateway to people smoking cigarettes.

Alan Boobis, professor of toxicology at Imperial College London and the chairman of the committee, said that while they discovered heated tobacco products reduce known toxic constituents of cigarettes by between 50 to 90 per cent, any reduction in the medium- to long-term health impact of smoking cannot be stated for certain because of the dearth of available independent evidence.

He said his committee was also researching the impact of e-cigarettes and have provisionally concluded they are preferable to heated tobacco from a health perspective.

"The reality is big tobacco has clearly recognised the future of cigarettes long-term is very poor and they are trying to develop strategies to sell what they grow," he said.

"We have emphasised the advertising has to be responsible. They should not be targeted to under-age individuals, rather those who are current smokers and desperately trying to give up but cannot. They should not be trying to sell them to naive users."

Marianna Mattheou, 51, who has smoked for more than 30 years and has a 30-a-day habit, hopes IQOS can cure her habit. She has been smoking IQOS for a month at the behest of her 14-year-old son but admits it has left her with a sore throat. "I don't trust them 100 per cent," she says.

The raw material: Farra Marquez Rubiera, a worker specialised in the
The raw material: Farra Marquez Rubiera, a worker specialised in the "despalillo," poses with dry harvested tobacco leaves in San Luis, Cuba. Photo / AP

Alexandros Chatzopoulos, the manager of regulatory affairs at the Greek affiliate of PMI, said the IQOS stores are steadfast in their refusal to sell to non-smokers and under 18s.

"We don't sell to non-smokers," he says. "We will send them out and say this product is not for you."

Back in London I put this claim to the test. I wander into the High Street Kensington IQOS store and tell the 20-something assistant who approaches me the truth - that I am an ex-smoker interested in the product.

She reiterates the rule that they do not sell to non-smokers but still leads me on a tour of the shop, inviting me to touch the oversized heating blade on the wall to feel the warmth.

At one point she grows suspicious of my questions and asks if I work for PMI who apparently perform spot-checks to ensure staff follow procedures. At the end I am offered a brochure and told if I recommend the device to friends they will receive a discount.

I am left with the uneasy feeling that the new wave of smoking devices are creating regulatory grey areas - and these are the gaps in which tobacco giants are used to winning big.