The Big Interview: Philip Morris International's Moira Gilchrist
Once a developer of anti-cancer drug treatments, Moira Gilchrist boasts what is surely a unique career path leading to her current role as vice president in the tobacco industry. The Scottish executive, who trained as a pharmacist and holds a PhD in pharmaceutical sciences from the University of Strathclyde, heads up scientific and public communications for Marlboro-owner Philip Morris International.
The global tobacco giant claims a 27.4 per cent share of the international cigarette market but is undergoing a monumental change to reposition itself as the world’s leading manufacturer of smoke-free alternatives. Its Unsmoke Your World campaign aims to deter non-smokers from beginning, encourages current smokers to quit, and tries to persuade those unable or unwilling to kick the habit to switch to e-cigarettes or heated tobacco devices.
PMI, which traces its roots back to tobacconist Philip Morris opening a single shop on London’s Bond Street in 1847, last year saw net revenues rise 3.1 per cent to $29.6 billion (£23bn), an increase the group says was driven mainly by the growth of its IQOS heated tobacco device in Europe.
With cigarettes still accounting for the majority of sales, through brands including L&M, Lark, Red & White and Philip Morris, in addition to its premium Marlboro and Parliament lines, there is some way to go until PMI achieves its smoke-free goal. As a former assistant director of clinical drug trials at Cancer Research UK, not to mention a woman at the top of the tree in a traditionally male-dominated sector, who better than Gilchrist to front the multinational’s commitment to modernise its offering and transition to smoke-free products?
A visible transformation
“We’re absolutely ready, willing and able to completely transform the tobacco market because of these smoke-free products,” she says. “And we want to do it as fast as possible. There are 11 million people around the world who are using our IQOS products and of those around eight million have abandoned cigarettes completely, that’s only in the course of about four years. That’s a real visible transformation that’s happening in a very short time.”
A one-time cigarette smoker, Gilchrist, who grew up in Balerno, Edinburgh, felt a personal as well as a professional pull towards the opportunity being offered by PMI, which she joined in 2006 as part of its research and development division. Though the path from a cancer-fighting charity to Big Tobacco may seem counter-intuitive, in the context of Gilchrist’s journey it appears a natural progression. After completing her PhD in 1994, Gilchrist continued her pharmaceutical work on-site at Strathclyde, funded by Cancer Research UK, where she was involved in clinical testing of treatments such as tamoxifen, a breast cancer drug.
In the late 90s, a career move by her husband led the couple to Switzerland. She landed in Price Waterhouse Coopers’ pharmaceutical industry management consultancy in Basel, serving a string of big pharma clients including Roche, Novartis and Johnson and Johnson. She gained a broad experience in how big pharma companies operate as well as how, and what, they were seeking to improve. One day, a call came in from PMI. She confesses she “didn’t know who PMI was” and only found her bearings after a spot of research, unable to fathom why a tobacco company would want to talk to her, as an expert in the pharma industry.
“My colleagues and I were totally confused. We just could not understand why this would be. Then we discovered the company had a vision to really address the very core of the problem that cigarette smoking causes, which is disease and early death, by developing, scientifically assessing and eventually commercialising products that smokers who don’t quit could switch to in order to potentially reduce their risk of getting a smoking-related illness.”
'I never would have dreamt of joining a tobacco company'
In her consultant capacity with PwC Gilchrist launched a project to help PMI define the skills, strategies and focus areas required to successfully create and commercialise cigarette alternatives, which were still theoretical products at the time. The 18-month project concluded in mid-2006, in Gilchrist’s words “completely re-engineering the existing R&D functions within PMI”.
“Coming from the pharmaceutical industry I think we were very well placed to understand the level and breadth and depth of the science that would be required to demonstrate that these products were, in fact, risk reduced compared with cigarettes,” she says.
At the conclusion of the project, PMI offered Gilchrist a position that would allow her to see the implementation of the strategy she had designed. Having unsuccessfully tried to quit smoking several times before, Gilchrist had a vested interest in furthering alternatives to traditional cigarettes. But there was also the professional drive to take ownership of what she saw as a pivotal moment for the tobacco industry.
“Coming from the pharmaceutical industry, I would never have dreamt of joining a tobacco company, it just would never have crossed my mind,” says Gilchrist. “But the funny thing was, I was a smoker. So when I was asked to join the company at the end of the project, I saw it from two probably quite different perspectives.
“I had the opportunity to bring this project to life and completely change the trajectory of the future of the company, and potentially the industry overall. I thought, if we’re successful, if we can produce the product, if we can provide the scientific evidence that we were recommending, then this would be a game changer potentially for the one billion men and women around the world who smoke.”
Reducing risk to smokers
She spent the next decade in PMI’s R&D division developing next generation products designed to deliver nicotine but reduce the risks of smoking-related diseases. In January 2018 Gilchrist became vice president of scientific and public communications, now based in Lausanne.
Gilchrist personally switched to smoke-free tobacco alternatives in 2013, as soon as the emerging products reached clinical testing phases where PMI was able to prove they were “no worse than cigarettes and looked like they had the potential to be much better”, she says. She has not returned to cigarettes since.
First introduced in Japan in 2014, the group’s IQOS heated tobacco device is now available in key cities in 51 markets under brand names Heets and HeatSticks; one of four such products in various stages of development and commercialisation at PMI. The group’s website hails the benefits of heating rather than burning the tobacco, stating it “significantly” reduces the level of harmful chemicals inhaled by the user.
With concerns from some corners over the level of health risks associated with using such devices, Gilchrist recognises that the debate around tobacco products and cigarette alternatives is polarised, but says “public support is there” for the industry to press ahead with this work. She says: “If we continue on this trajectory of being utterly transparent about the scientific facts that we have, supporting regulation and making sure that we’re doing our utmost to deter young people from using tobacco products, then the overall support from people in public health will improve over time.” The latter is a point on which she, and PMI as an organisation, is now unequivocally clear: with even smoke-free products containing nicotine, the devices are “designed only for adult smokers who otherwise would simply continue to use cigarettes”.
Spreading the message, however, remains a challenge. PMI is advocating for limited communications freedoms, such as inserting marketing materials into cigarette packs, to allow for the advertising of lower tobacco alternatives, which in the UK are still covered by the same regulations as traditional cigarettes. Gilchrist cites the Unsmoke Whitepaper, commissioned by PMI and conducted by Povaddo, which found that 83 per cent of people feel smokers should have access to, and accurate information about, smoke-free alternatives.
Gilchrist, who appeared before the Commons Science and Technology select committee to discuss this last year, appears to be used to changing attitudes, having carved out her career in two traditionally male-dominated sectors. She believes here, also, progress is being made.“I think many companies are very good at hiring in on an equal basis. But what happens when women come into the workplace is they don’t seem to have the same opportunities as men to advance through the hierarchy.”
She feels the environment engendered at PMI is addressing this imbalance, citing an “incredible” change in the last 13 years. “At the beginning it would not be unusual for me to be the only woman in a room of 30 men, whereas today, that’s extremely rare. And I’m really proud of the progress we’ve made.”