Article | Smoke-free products | Nov 28, 2021

      Heated tobacco products, cigarettes, and e-cigarettes: What's the difference?

      Burning tobacco, like in a cigarette, creates high levels of harmful chemicals, and anyone who smokes should quit smoking and nicotine altogether. 


      But the fact is that not every smoker quits. Cigarettes and other ways of taking in nicotine have been around for centuries, but recent technological advancements like heated tobacco products and e-cigarettes mean adults who want to continue using nicotine have better options available to them than continued smoking. And whether each option truly is better should be supported by research on a product by product basis.

      Just how do these newer products work, and how are they different from one another? Here are some answers to those questions.


      Cigarettes burn tobacco and create smoke

      A cigarette is tobacco that is processed and rolled in paper, and then lit so it can be smoked. It burns at 600 °C, but can flare above 800 °C during a puff. Burning tobacco, like in cigarettes, creates the main sources of danger. It is the action of burning that releases most of the harmful and potentially harmful chemicals into the smoke that is inhaled. And it’s the high level of chemicals that are the primary cause of smoking-related diseases.

      Illustration of heated tobacco product with green leaf inside, presenting heating of tobacco and not burning it.


      Heated tobacco products versus cigarettes: No burning, no smoke

      Heated tobacco products, or heat-not-burn (HNB) products, do exactly what their name suggests: they heat tobacco instead of burning it. That’s the biggest difference between them and cigarettes. By not burning tobacco, heated tobacco products don’t create smoke and their aerosols should contain fewer and lower levels of harmful chemicals compared to cigarette smoke.

      A heated tobacco product comes in two main parts: the heating source, and the tobacco itself. Some heated tobacco products are electronic, but not all, and the exact temperature the tobacco is heated to varies from product to product. The important thing is that heated tobacco products should avoid the high temperatures where tobacco is burnt. For our Tobacco Heating System  (THS)*, our findings show that they deliver nicotine similarly to a cigarette, but with lower levels of harmful chemicals on average.

      Illustration of heating source and tobacco inside the heating tobacco system product.


      Vaping versus smoking: no burning, no tobacco, no smoke

      Like heated tobacco products, e-cigarettes don’t create smoke because they don’t burn tobacco. In fact, they don’t even contain tobacco. They heat an e-liquid that often contains nicotine to produce an aerosol, which people usually call a vapor – hence the term “vaping”. By not burning tobacco, e-cigarettes don’t create smoke and so their aerosol should contain fewer harmful chemicals compared to cigarette smoke. Of course, each product should be tested to make sure this is indeed the case. Also worth mentioning: not all e-cigarettes contain nicotine, but the vast majority do.


      Are heated tobacco products and e-cigarettes safe substitutes for cigarettes?

      No. There is no safe alternative to cigarettes to date. Plus, it’s hard to speak in general terms about the safety of an entire category of smoke-free products, which includes various types of heated tobacco products and e-cigarettes. Each product should be supported by clear scientific evidence.

      Infographic showing difference between heated tobacco products and e-cigarettes.

      Here’s the theory: If a product doesn’t burn tobacco, it should produce lower levels of harmful chemicals than a cigarette, and that should lead to reduced effects on the body compared to cigarettes. Still, each product needs to be scientifically studied to find out whether each of those points are true. If they are, it means the product is likely to present a reduced risk of harm for adult smokers compared to cigarettes.

      You can read a simplified summary of our research on how we analyze the aerosol of smoke-free products, learn more about our findings on our smoke-free products, or watch the aerosol demonstration showing the difference between our THS product and cigarettes. You can also check out our Media Library to watch videos on these topics.

      One very important point: Neither heated tobacco products, nor e-cigarettes are risk-free. Both of these products, like cigarettes, generally contain nicotine. Nicotine is addictive and not risk-free, but it’s not the primary cause of smoking-related diseases. Smoke-free alternatives are only for adult smokers who would otherwise continue smoking. The best choice any smoker can make is to quit cigarettes and nicotine altogether.

      *THS is sold commercially as IQOS.


      News & events

      Open Science

      We at Philip Morris International have committed to replacing cigarettes with better alternatives as rapidly as possible for adults who would otherwise continue to smoke. In this era of social distancing and online conferences, we’ve created this space to share our scientific results openly with the scientific community.