Tuesday, June 10, 2014

It's Official: Big Pharma is Lobbying Against Electronic Cigarettes

I have long argued that tobacco control advocates who have financial ties to Big Pharma must disclose these ties if they opine about national strategies for electronic cigarette regulation because these ties represent a conflict of interest. My argument was based on the premise that electronic cigarettes represent a major form of market competition with pharmaceutical cessation aids and that drug companies therefore have a financial interest in seeing electronic cigarettes squashed.

Today, I reveal that this speculation about pharmaceutical financial interests in the demise of e-cigarettes was not just speculation, but it has now been confirmed.

According to an article in the London Times, GlaxoSmithKline - a major player in the pharmaceutical smoking cessation industry - has lobbied vigorously on behalf of stringent electronic cigarette regulation in the European Union. Specifically, a leaked memo apparently showed that Glaxo was telling policymakers that electronic cigarettes could be a gateway to smoking and that these products should be regulated as medicines, not as a type of nicotine or tobacco product.

According to the article: "One of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies has warned lawmakers that electronic cigarettes could act as a “gateway to tobacco”. The leaked correspondence from GlaxoSmithKline, whose nicotine patches, gums and lozenges are being undermined by the burgeoning e-cigarette market, reveals the opposition from the pharmaceutical industry to impending regulation of e-cigarettes across the European Union. The pharmaceutical industry wants medicines licences to be mandatory for e-cigarettes, as they are for nicotine products. Instead, the EU is set to introduce a system in which e-cigarette companies can opt in for medicines regulation or be regulated in a similar way to traditional cigarettes."

Christopher Snowdon reported the details of the story here back in February. He wrote:

"This is a blatant attempt at rent-seeking by an obvious vested interest. We know that the pharmaceutical industry has been lobbying hard to hamper the growth of e-cigarettes so it comes as no surprise to find Glaxo using the tired old gateway argument. The truth is that e-cigarettes will only "seriously disadvantage" the NRT market if they work better as quitting aids. In my experience—and the experience of countless other people—e-cigarettes are much better substitutes for smoking. If they were really a "gateway" to smoking, e-cigarettes would be good for companies like Glaxo as they would create more smokers (NRT companies need there to be smokers just as much as cigarette companies do)."

Snowdon also noted that the UK National Smoking Cessation Conference was funded by GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer. He wrote:

"As usual, both these companies are main sponsors of the conference—apparently there is no problem having corporations that are vociferously opposed to the most promising development in smoking cessation paying for a conference about smoking cessation."

The Rest of the Story

Financial interests in Big Pharma must now be recognized as conflicts of interest for any organization or individual who is offering opinions about national strategy, policy, or regulations regarding electronic cigarettes. Therefore, the authors of all scientific articles regarding electronic cigarettes must disclose any financial interests with pharmaceutical companies. Furthermore, organizations must also disclose any financial ties to Big Pharma when they offer recommendations regarding electronic cigarette policy.

Unfortunately, there have been numerous violations of this disclosure standard, as several commentators on electronic cigarette policy have failed to disclose their Big Pharma ties in published articles. I have highlighted many of these stories on my blog, but for one demonstrative example, see my column on failed disclosures by an individual and an organization in the New York Times debate on electronic cigarettes.

Another inexcusable conflict of interest is the fact that Mitch Zeller, the director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products and therefore the chief author of the proposed electronic cigarette regulations, came to the FDA directly from a consulting job with GlaxoSmithKline and therefore has a severe conflict of interest regarding the electronic cigarette issue.

Moreover, several former members (and one current member) of the FDA's Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee have (or have had) financial conflicts of interest with Big Pharma, and thus are not in a position to offer opinions about national tobacco product regulation in the context of this expert advisory panel.

And finally, it appears that most of the national tobacco control conferences continue to be funded by pharmaceutical companies. There is no way that these conferences can be objective about smoking policy, especially regarding electronic cigarettes and smoking cessation, when they are funded by Big Pharma.

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