Science, transparency, and the collaboration of governments, regulators, the health community, and the private sector are crucial in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and other global threats.
This was the key message of André Calantzopoulos, CEO of Philip Morris International (PMI), in the “Conversations on Leadership” virtual panel discussion held on September 29, 2020.
Calantzopoulos joined Julia Coronado, President and Founder of MacroPolicy Perspectives, as co-panelist in the online event organized by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) in line with the first virtual session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). This year’s UNGA theme was “Reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism, confronting COVID-19 through effective multilateral action”. The panelists shared lessons learned from the pandemic and how the scientific community can better work with the public and private sectors to mitigate threats to global health in the future.
Present the facts
Calantzopoulos noted the complex interdependency that underpins the planetary ecosystem and global economy, particularly the fragility of global supply chains. “As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, the slightest problem can derail [the global economy].” Global supply chains should have redundancies such as inventories, as well as flexibility, which can facilitate business continuity, he explained. “This applies to both governments and companies.”
Companies have two advantages, according to Calantzopoulos. “They can innovate, especially with the right incentives. Second, they have access to consumers.” He stressed that governments and companies, on their own, cannot achieve significant change; they must work together. The first and most important thing, he continued, is to explain the facts to people about global problems such as climate change and the pandemic. “Not demagogically, not based on politics, but based on facts.”
We explain to people what climate change is and its implications, and then offer them alternatives to their current behavior which can help mitigate climate change, according to Calantzopoulos. “But we also point out that fossil fuels per se are not the problem; it is the fact that we burn fossil fuels that creates the problem. This is the same approach we have in helping people move away from combustible cigarettes. First, we tell them that combustion is the problem in smoking. For smokers who don’t want or who are unable to quit smoking, we tell them about switching to less harmful non-combustible alternatives.”
Calantzopoulos underscored the value of leveraging science and technology to inform decision making. “We live in a world where politics dominates everything and the narrative supersedes the facts. Policymakers and legislators should have access to subject matter experts [who can] provide them with facts and data.”
Create the right regulatory environment
Governments in collaboration with the private sector must create the right regulatory environment, stressed Calantzopoulos. “You cannot just have a law and assume things will happen or just let companies [operate freely] and assume this will happen. I think we need a very interactive process between the public sector and private sector. But we should not forget that the [real] decision makers…are the consumers because they [are the ones who] have to change their behavior.”
The tobacco industry is highly regulated and rightfully so, according to Calantzopoulos. “Our new non-combustible products are not risk-free and obviously must be regulated. But sometimes, as we see in the tech sector, regulation lags behind. The regulation needs to adapt.” Otherwise, he continued, regulation falls back to the precautionary principle that unless everything is tested and every impact is measured, innovation cannot proceed. “We need to find a balance. Never leave something completely unregulated, but don’t stifle innovation based on too much precaution or ideology.”
Transparency helps drive innovation, Calantzopoulos said. For example, solar panels are manufactured using chemicals, which if not disposed properly, can damage the environment. While not harm-free, solar panels can reduce the impact of climate change, he explained. “We know that our product, cigarettes, have a negative impact on health. This is why we are developing non-combustible alternatives in line with our mission to create a smoke-free future.”
PMI is leading a transformation in the tobacco industry to create a smoke-free future and ultimately replace cigarettes with smoke-free products to benefit adults who would otherwise continue to smoke. Among the smoke-free products developed by PMI and already available in many markets around the world is IQOS, an electronic device that heats tobacco-filled sticks wrapped in paper, called HEETS or HeatSticks, to generate a nicotine-containing aerosol. IQOS heats specially designed tobacco units just enough to release a flavorful nicotine-containing tobacco vapor but without burning the tobacco. Because the tobacco is not burned, the levels of harmful chemicals produced by IQOS is significantly lower compared to combustible cigarette smoke. Around 11 million adult smokers around the world have already stopped smoking and switched to IQOS.