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Oscar Wilde famously described the cigarette as the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. “It’s exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied,” he wrote. Perhaps that explains why so little true product innovation took place in the tobacco industry over the past century. Why tweak a product that is perfect already and leaves consumers wanting more, to boot?

Of course, the cigarette isn’t perfect—quite the contrary—and the long-overdue acknowledgment of its adverse health effects, along with rapidly declining sales of combustibles, has recently unleashed a torrent of innovation, aimed at reducing the risks of smoking. It’s a remarkable shift for a traditionally conservative business. Whereas “innovation” in the tobacco industry once meant a different color of tipping paper or a heart shape cut into the mouth end of a filter, it now involves printed circuit boards, advanced chemistry and sophisticated battery technologies.

Next-generation products have propelled the tobacco industry to the forefront of innovation. A few years back, Citigroup described e-cigarettes as the most disruptive technology after 3-D printing. Today’s tobacco-heating products are at least as revolutionary.

The changes are felt even in the industry’s employee acquisition departments. Where reputationally challenged tobacco companies once struggled to recruit talent, they are now flooded with applications. For many job hunters, the opportunity to design a potentially life-saving product is more appealing than creating a new shampoo, microwave meal or other fast-moving consumer good.

The shift has also been noted among traditional suppliers of the tobacco industry, who have been enthusiastically retooling their operations to meet the rapidly changing demands. For example, ITM, a longtime supplier of machinery to the traditional tobacco business, designed a widely acclaimed machine for e-cigarettes that can evolve with the sector’s rapidly changing technology.

Other suppliers have been inspired by the new products, as well, developing new types of reconstituted tobacco, filters and quality-control instruments, among other prerequisites. For this issue, Tobacco Reporter’s Stefanie Rossel went to see firsthand how several long-standing tobacco industry suppliers are expanding their portfolios to cater to the new generation of tobacco products.

Stefanie returned from her travels impressed. Her hosts’ technological prowess and readiness to reinvent their business proves that there is plenty of life in this venerable industry. Contrary to what the proverb suggests, old dogs—even those accustomed to chasing tobacco business—are perfectly capable of learning new tricks.

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