The first store in the Richmond area that will sell tobacco giant Altria Group Inc.’s alternative smoking device called iQOS is scheduled to open Saturday.
The iQOS store at 3402 W. Cary St. in Carytown is one of just a few in the United States that exclusively sell the device, which is a key part of Henrico County-based Altria’s strategy to offset declining sales of conventional cigarettes by offering alternative products to smokers.
Altria introduced iQOS to the U.S. market in the Atlanta area in early October as a lead market in what is expected eventually to become a national rollout.
“What we really want to do both here in Richmond and in our first market in Atlanta is introduce this new product to adult smokers, 21-plus, and educate them about the product,” said David Sutton, an Altria spokesman. “For those who are interested in the product, we will begin them on a guided trial and conversion journey to fully convert to iQOS, which is our ultimate goal.”
Only people 21 years or older who affirm that they are current smokers will be allowed to enter the Carytown store, a sleekly decorated shop that is solely dedicated to sales of iQOS and a few accessories for the device.
The iQOS device is designed to closely mimic the experience of smoking a cigarette without actually burning tobacco. The product consists of a handheld, battery-powered, rechargeable device that heats tobacco-filled “heat sticks” to generate a nicotine-containing aerosol.
The iQOS device will be sold only in face-to-face interactions with customers at the Carytown store and at some “pop-up” kiosks that Altria is planning to set up at various locations in the Richmond area.
About 170 other retail stores in the Richmond region will sell the tobacco “heat sticks” that are inserted into the iQOS device. “Once you have the device, the heat sticks will be available to you at traditional retail partners,” Sutton said.
In the Richmond area, the heat sticks are priced comparably with conventional cigarettes, at $5.75 for a pack of 20. The Carytown store is offering the iQOS device itself and 10 packs of heat sticks — or 200 heat sticks in all — at a bundled price of $80.
Sutton said the store will not sell iQOS to former smokers, nor will it serve users of vaping products, which are designed and function differently from iQOS. “They are very different products and very distinct categories,” Sutton said.
The iQOS device was first introduced in overseas markets in 2014 by Philip Morris International Inc., a former Altria subsidiary that was spun off in 2008. It is now available in 51 international markets.
The regulatory scheme surrounding iQOS remains somewhat complicated. In late April, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the introduction of iQOS in the U.S., where Altria has the rights to sell the product under an agreement with Philip Morris International.
While it approved the product for sale, the FDA stressed that does not mean iQOS should be considered “safe” or “FDA approved,” though the agency did say that the evidence it evaluated showed that iQOS “contains fewer toxic chemicals than cigarette smoke, and many of the toxins identified are present at lower levels than in cigarette smoke.”
The FDA is still evaluating whether any health claims can be made about iQOS. Until the agency reaches a conclusion on that issue, employees at the iQOS store cannot talk with customers about the relative health risks of using iQOS versus conventional cigarettes.
“We talk to them about the attributes of the product versus cigarettes,” Sutton said. For instance, store employees can say iQOS produces no ash, no combustion and less odor than conventional cigarettes.
Philip Morris International says about 12 million smokers have used iQOS in international markets, and about 8.8 million have switched fully from cigarettes to the product.
“Our experience internationally is that 70% of smokers who try iQOS will switch fully,” said Corey Henry, a Philip Morris International spokesman.
Philip Morris International manufactures the iQOS heat sticks at a factory in Bologna, Italy, that was built specifically to make the product, Henry said.
“PMI has spent about $6 billion developing our portfolio of smoke-free products, and the majority of that has gone into scientific substantiation and research,” Henry said. The majority of that has been dedicated to heat-not-burn technology, he said.
The Carytown store will be open Mondays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.