This vape-cigarette hybrid is the latest attempt to make smoking safer

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As vapes get an even shadier rep — with more than 1,000 cases of severe lung disease apparently linked to the products, at the Center for Disease Control’s latest count — Altria has introduced Iqos, a vaping alternative to the US, beginning with an Atlanta mall on Friday, September 4. What is Iqos, though, and how is it any different from a vape?

Altria began developing Iqos with cigarette behemoth Philip Morris before the companies split in 2008, according to CNBC. With its sleek, compact design, the device looks a lot like a vape, but there are a few key differences in how it works. While vapes heat a liquid that can contain nicotine, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the compound behind the cannabis "high"), additives, and other substances, Iqos heats actual tobacco ("tobacco-filled sticks wrapped in paper" to be exact, according to the FDA).

And unlike regular cigarettes, it heats, rather than burns, the tobacco, producing fewer toxins as a result. According to Philip Morris’ website, Iqos comes in two versions: one with three parts, including a heated tobacco unit, a heating system holder, and a charger; and another that integrates these parts and allows consumers to use it up to 10 times, without recharging the battery.

The Food and Drug Administration has also vetted Iqos, authorizing sales of the device in the US on April 30 through a process known as the premarket tobacco application (PMTA) pathway, which requires manufactures to demonstrate that their product is “appropriate for the protection of public health,” according to a statement from the agency. While this doesn’t necessarily mean Iqos is safe, the FDA noted that a thorough scientific review determined that it does "produce fewer or lower levels of some toxins" than regular cigarettes, and may help smokers quit.

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Vapes haven’t historically been required to undergo such a stringent vetting process. The FDA is still developing a policy that would require the removal of vapes with flavors other than tobacco from the market, which would later need to receive premarket authorization before getting back onto the market, according to CNN — and that policy probably won't be finalized for a few more weeks. Vape manufacturers also haven’t needed to follow the requirements the FDA imposes on products that undergo this pathway, including in how they market their devices to ensure they don’t fall into the hands of youth or non-smokers.

Under the PMTA pathway, Altria needs to submit quarterly reports to the FDA on its sales, including consumer age and other demographic data, as well as annual reports that include information on adverse experiences, CNBC reports. In other words, there might be more regulation of this product, which is a good thing for consumers.

The FDA also said that, unlike Juuls and other vapes, Iqos doesn’t seem to lure in youth, per the New York Times. The device comes in only one flavor, menthol, not the plethora of candy- and dessert-like flavors that Juul and other vape manufacturers often use in their products, which many have criticized as a way to market them to kids. Indeed, the FDA issued a warning to Juul in September for marketing its products to youth as safer alternatives to regular cigarettes.

Altria is also marketing Iqos to people who smoke regular cigarettes, not to non-smokers or current vape users. Employees at Iqos’ newly launched store in Lenox Square mall in Atlanta not only checks prospective consumers’ IDs to make sure they’re at least 21, they also ask them if they currently smoke, the Seattles Times reports. Those who don’t can enter the store, but can’t sample or buy the devices. The same goes for those who vape. The idea is for Iqos to help smokers quit, not to get non-smokers and vapers hooked on a product that’s ultimately less safe than refraining from puffing on cigarette-like devices altogether.

Since 2014, Iqos has been available in 49 countries, and an Altria spokesperson says the company plans to “expand expeditiously” with stores, according to CNN Business. Again, the ideal scenario is to avoid using such products at all, but if you’re a smoker looking to quit, Iqos seems to be a safer alternative than vapes.