The truth behind tobacco firm’s HK$78m sham laboratory

Tobacco giant Philip Morris International (PMI) claims it may have to close its HK$78 million “research and development centre” in Wong Chuk Hang, with a loss of 60 local jobs, if the Hong Kong government goes ahead with its proposed e-cigarette ban.

But a visit to the facility shows the main function of the office is supply-chain work for PMI’s Zhuhai iQOS factory, together with a lobbying showcase for the firm’s “reduced risk” tobacco products. And not much more.

Blue Skies China took an exclusive tour of the facility in March 2019, eight months after its opening, guided by general manager of the Hong Kong and Macau branch of Philip Morris Asia, Brett Cooper.

Left: view of the exhibition area. Right (top and bottom), the boardroom.

At an estimated 20,000sq ft (around two thirds of the 13th floor of One Island South in Wong Chuk Hang), the office comprises secure reception, exhibition area, boardroom, pantry, large open-plan office, meeting rooms and a laboratory.

The boardroom is top-class, featuring leather sofas, library shelving (empty), an 18-seat boardroom table and the usual full suite of AV/electronic equipment.

The adjacent exhibition area, estimated at around 1,500sq ft, comprises a 3-D/hologram display of the iQOS proposition, comparing its emissions to traditional cigarettes; wall-posters of “lung disease” and “pulmonary disease”; display cabinets featuring PMI’s latest products: iQOS; TEEPS (a heat-not-burn device lit with a traditional cigarette lighter); and VEEV (also called MESH in the UK), a traditional vaping pen.

The open-plan working area is enormous and has capacity for around 70-80 people – around five banks of 14 desks each. The office divided into “science” and “supply chain”; although the only staff seen were in the supply chain section (and only around 20 people visible altogether). The open-plan office is surrounded by around eight small glass-walled meeting rooms, each with capacity for 4-6 people.

And then there’s the “laboratory”, a 150sq ft room (estimated) behind a security door at the back of the office. The laboratory features two benches, some fabrication gear (unused, not entirely out of the packaging), weight scales and, the largest equipment on the bench, a Pantone colour matching light-box.

Pantone 3 Light Booth as used in the PMI laboratory: such machines are commonly used in supply-chain offices to colour-match products and packaging

Such light-boxes are commonly used in supply-chain work: for example, to colour-match factory samples and retail products to original design specifications. A Pantone light-box could conceivably be used to examine and grade, for example, cigarette filter colouration; however the laboratory is not set up for burning, smoking or vaporising anything, as there’s no directable exhaust system or fume cupboard, and any fumes or vapours from testing could easily contaminate other samples and pose a hazard to personnel. PMI has repeatedly been criticised for the quality of its laboratory work in the past, but such an obvious blunder is unlikely: instead, it’s more plausible the light-box is used (if at all, it wasn’t plugged in) for simply examining iQOS packaging and devices for colour-matching and quality control. In other words, the humdrum supply-chain functions of offices all over Hong Kong.

In a glass-doored enclosure in the corner of the laboratory, hundreds of small batteries are racked up and are being tested for charging capacity and temperature.

But aside from the battery testing corner, the laboratory is pristine: not in a “clean room” way, but in a “never been used” way. Equipment still in packaging, eight months after the centre opened, is the biggest give-away that no science is going on here. An iQOS device, disassembled to expose its circuit board, appears left on the bench as a prop.

Relocation looms: no loss to Hong Kong

Cooper says the centre will likely be relocated to Shenzhen if the Hong Kong e-cigarette ban is passed. But PMI’s complaints about Hong Kong’s lack of “innovation” or that it will be forced to close its “research and development” centre are disingenuous attempts to play the victim: there’s no obvious research or development in the centre other than supply-chain work for products which have not yet proven their safety to the satisfaction of the US FDA, let alone the Hong Kong government.

Cigarettes at child-head height in Hong Kong. PMI’s promises to act on this have proved empty.

If PMI is genuine about reducing cigarette smoking, it should promote (rather than actively hinder, as it has done over the last few decades) basic successful smoking policies such as cigarette tax, age 21 limits and a point-of-sale cigarette packaging bans.

From a public health perspective, e-cigarettes and “reduced risk” technology may hold future promise in helping smokers to quit cigarettes: without calling such products safe, certain emissions are lower, and the technology will improve over time.

But witnessing PMI’s propaganda machine in action, it’s hard to see how firms such as PMI would wield these benefits to actually help people rather than to profit by aggressively expanding their customer base into new market segments (youngsters, for example). A firm which spends HK$78 million on a sham R&D centre is one to be watched very closely indeed, and certainly shouldn’t be trusted when it comes to discussing public health policy in the city.

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