TOKYO -- The latest generation of heated cigarettes are providing an alternative for smokers looking to feed their habit without annoying people around them with the noxious odors and fumes associated with conventional smoking. They are also opening up a welcome new market for tobacco companies.
Heated cigarettes do not burn tobacco but heat heats it up by electric power. Users enjoy smoking by inhaling the vapor. They differ from the more common e-cigarettes, which use liquids that contain nicotine.
The heated type comes with a charger and a stick or capsule filled with tobacco. These are inserted into the device, which heats them enough to produce the vapor.
As the device produces no ash, smoke or unpleasant smells, they are less likely to affect people around the smokers. That allows people who have been driven to balconies for smoking -- in Japanese called the "hotaru zoku" (firefly tribe) -- to smoke openly with their family and friends around them.
One man, a 49-year-old employee at a brokerage house, said U.S. tobacco giant Philip Morris International's iQOS cigarette has changed his smoking habit dramatically.
"When people who hate cigarettes sit next to me at a drinking session, they now tell me 'please feel free to smoke,'" he said.
He said his apartment imposes an outright ban on smoking, including balconies, forcing him to go outside the premises to have a puff. With the iQOS, he does not have to.
A 22-year-old hairdresser in Tokyo said that e-cigarettes also do not produce ash, so smoking and watching TV while lying on a sofa is possible.
He said he liked the fact that the e-cigarettes enable people in the hospitality industry like himself to take a cigarette break without having to worry about the smoke.
The world's three tobacco giants have all entered the next-generation heated cigarette field.
PMI's iQOS, whose suggested retail price is 9,980 yen ($89), not including special sticks, hit store shelves for the first time in Nagoya in 2014. Nationwide sales started in spring this year.
Japan Tobacco started marketing its Ploom Tech cigarette at stores in Fukuoka and online in March.
British American Tobacco of Britain plans to sell its glo in Sendai next month.
Both JT and BAT are looking to begin nationwide sales as early as possible.
According to a JT survey, 29.7% of Japanese men smoked cigarettes in 2016. It was the first time the percentage had fallen below 30%. The number of cigarettes sold in the country that year almost halved from the peak.
Tobacco makers hope to stem the dwindling market by offering "a different type of smoking experience."
Users of the heated cigarettes do not have to grind cigarette butts in ash trays as with conventional smoking and can dispose of the sticks soon after smoking them. Sticks and capsules cost almost the same as paper-wrapped tobacco, or are 10-20 yen more per packet. The number of puffs users can take on a packet of sticks or capsules is almost on a par with a packet of paper-wrapped tobacco.
The drawback is that heat type requires charging and takes some time after switching it on before being able to use it. Opinions are split over flavors too.
"Once accustomed to the process, its usability won't be a problem," said a 40-year-old male designer. "Flavors are good enough to substitute for paper-wrapped tobacco."
Demand for heated cigarettes is outstripping supply.
Lines of people formed in front of a Harajuku store selling iQOS cigarette in the morning hours in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward have become a common sight around the area. On Nov. 10, the store sold about 80 units of iQOS, its entire stock.
Shipments of the Ploom Tech were temporarily suspended after selling five times the monthly target in only five days after its launch.
Store selling the Ploom Tech are limited to shops in Fukuoka, so that many people who buy the device in the city are those who visited there for business or sightseeing purposes.
According to PMI, about 4,200 locations across Japan, including non-smoking facilities and spaces, allow the use of iQOS. This is spreading to restaurants, cafe, hotels, inns and rented meeting rooms.
Car rental companies have also jumped on the bandwagon.
Tokyo-based car sharing giant Orix Auto has introduced 60 cars in Tokyo that allow heated cigarettes. Normally, smoking is prohibited in rental cars, but the company has received many requests to provide vehicles that allow smoking, according to an Orix Auto official.
Morioka-based taxi company Furusato Kotsu will also allow in-car smoking starting Tuesday but limit it to iQOS only.
At VIORO, a commercial facility hosting many fashion-related shops, rented out Ploom Tech and set up a smoking space for a limited time in October. The smell of cigarettes can linger for a long time on clothing, but the heated type do not give off such odors.
For heated cigarettes to be fully accepted, people concerned about secondhand smoke, as well as government at all levels have to embrace the new devices.
Local governments that ban smoking are divided over how to deal with heated cigarettes because there still remains a risk of littering.
A Tokyo metropolitan government survey in fiscal 2013 found that 56.8% of restaurants in Tokyo have not implemented measures to ban smoking or separate smoking and non-smoking areas.
Many foreigners in Japan have complained about the delay in banning smoking here.
A 31-year-old German woman said that she did not understand why smoking is still allowed where people are eating.
In August, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare proposed a total ban on indoor smoking ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, when the number of foreign visitors is expected to shoot up.
It remains to be seen whether heated cigarettes will be banned, as paper-wrapped cigarettes are.