The world’s largest tobacco company may face legal action from the UK Government if it does not comply with tobacco advertising standards.

That’s according to the Department of Health, which this week issued a formal order notice to Philip Morris International, producers of Marlboro cigarettes.

The order requested Philip Morris to remove all references to the IQOS heat-not-burn (HnB) device as being ‘healthier’ than smoking from its marketing campaigns, as the term is in breach of advertising standards for tobacco products.

Unlawful advertisement of tobacco can result in a financial penalty or a custodial sentence of up to six months in the UK.

The developments were initially uncovered by The Telegraph newspaper. It found that newsagents across the UK had been supplied with window-display posters promoting the IQOS device.

On issuing a threat of legal action, public health minister, Steve Brine MP, said:

“We have been explicit that the promotion of tobacco products is unlawful – as my letter to Philip Morris International makes abundantly clear. Smoking kills 78,000 people every year and I am personally committed to doing all I can to protect people from the harms of tobacco. We expect PMI to stop this unlawful advertisement of tobacco products and we will not rule out legal action if they continue.” 

Philip Morris has denied the adverts are illegal and claims it wants to help smokers by providing them with better alternatives to traditional cigarettes. Its UK managing director has defended the adverts to The Telegraph, claiming they are lawful because tobacco advertising laws were designed to govern cigarettes, not new-style tobacco heaters which are lower risk, and designed to help people quit cigarettes.

Meanwhile Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH UK), described the multinational company’s stance as “barefaced cheek”. 

Away from the UK, IQOS has been seeing success in the Japanese market where HnB has been proving a popular alternative to smoking.

However, according to the Financial Times, the company considerably reduced its full-year earnings guidance on Thursday and shares fell six percent in morning trading.