The Knock-Off HeatSticks Problem
Part One of our Knock-Offs Report
IQOS is known for being one of the most costly Heat-Not-Burn brands on the market. Not only are the devices expensive, but replacement components, accessories, and HeatSticks are too. IQOS HeatSticks, known as HEETS, retail for different prices around the globe depending on the particular regions’ tobacco market. Here in Canada, each HeatStick costs approximately $0.60. Which is why when we saw boxes of 100 HeatSticks being advertised for $10 and under on Alibaba.com we were intrigued.
Some of you may be familiar with Alibaba.com, but for those of you who are just now being introduced, think of it as Asia’s Amazon.com. Alibaba.com is owned by Alibaba Group Holding Limited, a Chinese company that specializes in retail and e-commerce. The draw is that Alibaba.com, as well as other Alibaba enterprises, such as AliExpress, are cheap but expansive. By this we mean that you can buy almost anything through Alibaba sites. Ever tried buying a HnB device on Amazon? It’s not easy.
Recently, our searched for ‘IQOS’ on Amazon.ca just to see what was available. As of when we searched, there was one IQOS 2.4 device available for $171.00CAD. The rest of the items were a mix of knock-off IQOS accessories, herbal cigarettes, and random stuff (my personal favorite is the IQOS shower curtain – yes, it’s a real thing, find it here). The selection is limited and search results can sometimes be unrelated to the search keyword(s). Whereas, when you search through an Alibaba site you immediately find hundreds of items relating to your search, device knock-offs, device alternatives, accessories, and HeatSticks.
Knock-offs aren’t surprising. Due to the exclusivity of IQOS, some consumers want a device that resembles PMI’s HnB brand and functions in a similar manner, but with a lower price tag. Knock-off retailers can provide that. The actual HnB device (for example IQOS’ pocket charger and holder) do not contain tobacco or nicotine thus making it easier for manufacturers to replicate them. It also helps that most knock-offs are designed and manufactured in China, the birthplace of vape and vaporizers, as manufacturers can easily access the technology and tools needed to replicate HnB devices.
Things aren’t quite as easy with the replication of HeatSticks, which contain tobacco and nicotine, and thus are a more costly venture. HeatStick ingredients are pricey, face tougher health regulations, undergo more intense inspections when being exported/imported, and are more likely to infringe on the original manufacturer’s copyright which could cause legal issues for the knock-off make. How then, can HeatSticks be made available on Alibaba.com and why are they so cheap?
We found two sellers on Alibaba. Seller Number 1 is from Indonesia and is selling a pack of 100 for $9-$11USD, which sets the cost of each HeatStick at approximately $0.10. Seller Number 2 is from Switzerland and is selling 1000 Heatsticks for $1.11USD, which set the cost of HeatSticks at approximately $0.01.
These look like real IQOS HEETS, which can sometimes trick people into believing that they are what they claim to be. Unfortunately, they are not real. They were probably made with the hopes that they would pass for the real thing, so that individuals looking for a good deal or a cheaper retail outlet would purchase them, and the seller would profit. The main indicator that these are knock-offs is the price. As stated above official IQOS retail for more than double the cost of these listings. While that official price is inflated somewhat to generate profit for the company, it is suspicious as to how these listings could also make a profit at such a low price if the HEETS were real. If these listings were simply people re-selling IQOS they would be loosing money, even if they purchased them wholesale. That indicates that these products are cheaper to produce than official IQOS HEETS and therefore cannot be the same product.
Another indicator is that neither of the sellers explicitly say that the HeatSticks are the IQOS brand. Seller Number 1 advertises them as “HEETS for IQOS” and Seller Number 2 refers to them as “Heets Cigarettes.” Alibaba, as well as China itself, usually does not stringently enforce copyright claims, but there is still a certain amount of self-monitoring that knock-off manufacturers will impose on themselves to avoid any potential lawsuits placed by the original manufacturer. The fact that these sellers were careful in their advertisement wording indicates an attempt to do just that.
Why Should You Care?
This begs the question of why should we care? What does it matter if knock-off HEETS are being sold for $10 and under? Isn’t that a good thing for the consumer?
Yes and no. On one hand IQOS, the most well-known HnB brand, products are becoming available to more people worldwide. This could have an impact on harm reduction efforts, thus improving the lives of traditional cigarette smokers. On the other hand, none of these products are regulated since they are not official. Knock-off manufacturers have no minimum standard for martial nor ingredient quality. Who knows what goes into these unofficial HeatSticks and is it really something you want to be injecting when it costs less than 0.1 cent to make each stick?
We’re not trying to argue that official HeatSticks are completely safe. Official IQOS HEETS contain some concerning materials, such as the unexplained presence of lead, yet they have still passed government and health standards regulations which deem them to be safe for consumption. Unofficial HeatSticks do not undergo any reviews and therefore have the potential to be dangerous. That is scary.
Now just because this is a possibility doesn’t mean it happens. Knock-off manufacturers and retailers on Alibaba sites could be providing a 100% safe and effective product, but we just don’t know for certain.
Our team investigated both sellers and found that neither had a solid business background, by Western standards. Seller Number 1, OLLI Purnama TBK, appears to be based in Jakarta, Indonesia, yet no official company address is provided. Moreover, there is no website, business registration, or documentation available online that indicates this business has ever been given permission by a governing body to sell products. Seller Number 2, Quantum Management LLC, also does not provide any proof of being a legal business nor existing beyond Alibaba.com. The company profile on Alibaba says that the company is Swiss, but its headquarters are in Adjaria, Georgia. Once again, our team could not find a company website or contact information. Sketchy.
Our team recommends purchasing only official IQOS HEETS, and other HeatSticks, in an effort to protect your health, but ultimately it is an individual choice. We understand that using HnB devices can get pricey. If you do choose to purchase unofficial HeatSticks online we simply hope that you remain cautious and make sure to think critically about what you are buying and where you’re buying it from. Remember your health is the number one priority.
What do you think? Have you ever tried knock-off HeatSticks? Share your thoughts below!