British American Tobacco sues long-time rival Philip Morris International


Cigarette and tobacco manufacturing company British American Tobacco (BAT) has filed a patent infringement lawsuit against long-time rival Philip Morris International (PMI). 

According to a Reuters article, BAT alleged that the tobacco heating technology used in PMI’s IQOS devices infringed its patents and is seeking remedies for damages caused and an injunction on importing the product. The article also said that the lawsuits are directed at the heating blade technology used in IQOS devices, which was BAT's initial version of the technology and is now currently used in its tobacco heating product glo. 

BAT has also filed a patent infringement claim with the International Trade Commission (ITC) in the US. Besides PMI, the others being sued in the same claim include Altria Group and its US subsidiary Philip Morris USA, as mentioned in the ITC claim. 

IQOS is PMI’s tobacco heating product that was first launched in Japan in 2014. According to PMI, almost six million smokers have already switched to IQOS in the four years since it was first launched, with more than half of them in Japan. BAT too has a flagship tobacco heating product called glo, which was first launched in the Japanese city of Sendai in December 2016. Both IQOS and glo are part of the tobacco manufacturers’ commitment to offering adult smokers a choice of potentially reduced-risk products.

In the Reuters article, BAT said that the company may be able to get an ITC exclusion order to block IQOS from being imported into the US by PMI. This could be passed if PMI agrees to take a licence to BAT’s patents. Meanwhile, PMI said in the article that it has yet to review and evaluate the allegations by BAT, but will “vigorously defend itself”. Marketing has reached out to BAT and PMI for comment.

Both BAT and PMI have been aggressively reinventing and rebranding themselves as government bodies globally impose stricter measures of marketing and advertising tobacco products. Earlier in March, BAT unveiled its new purpose and evolved strategy which ultimately aims to reduce the health and environmental impacts of its business. According to BAT, while cigarettes will be at the core of its business for some time to come, it looks to generate an increasingly greater proportion of its revenue from products other than cigarettes and so reduce the health impact of its business.

Similarly, PMI is building its future towards smoke-free products and is looking for less harmful, and alternatives to cigarettes and smoking. Recently, the tobacco manufacturer suspended its global social media campaign, following Reuters probe into the company’s use of influencers whose age is below PMI’s internal guidance. According to Reuters, the influencers used for the marketing campaign were aged below 25 years, and were mainly Russian models on Instagram. A PMI spokesperson said that upon learning of these allegations, the company “immediately initiated and concluded” an internal investigation and took swift action to address an instance of influencer engagement in breach of its digital influencer guidance. 

BAT too was investigated in 2018 for paying social media influencers to post images of cigarettes and smoking as part of a marketing strategy. A two-year investigation by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and Netnografica LLC, a US-based consumer research and consulting firm specialising in online research dug out documents on more than 100 social media campaigns by multinational tobacco giants PMI, BAT, Japan Tobacco International and Imperial Brands. According to the research, young social media influencers were paid to promote cigarettes online to millions of followers without disclosing that they were engaged in paid advertising.