Cigarettes are the only legal consumer product that kills half of its users if consumed as intended by the manufacturer. The diseases they cause cost Australia’s health system A$136.9 billion a year.
Philip Morris International (PMI) is one of the global leaders in the cigarette supply chain. But with cigarette sales steadily declining over the past 20 years, tobacco companies such as Philip Morris are now attempting to market themselves as health care companies with a vision of a “smoke-free future.”
One of the industry’s first moves was to manufacture non-cigarette nicotine products, such as nicotine replacement therapy to help people quit smoking.
In the latest move to diversify its portfolio, Philip Morris has acquired British health care company Vectura Group Plc for more than £1 billion (A$1.9 billion).
Vectura specializes in the manufacture of inhalation products such as commonly used inhalers (or puffers) and nebulizers that help people with asthma and lung disease breathe better.
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On 12 August, the Vectura board announced a “unanimous PMI proposal recommendation” to shareholders, with a decision based on value and access to resources.
The Vectura Board noted:
[…] Broader stakeholders can benefit from PMI’s significant financial resources and its intention to increase research and development investments and operate Vectura as an autonomous business entity that will form the backbone of its inhaled therapeutics business.
On 15 September, the deal became official. And so the problems begin.
In the acquisition of Vectura, Philip Morris will benefit from treating diseases caused by its products, as nebulizers are commonly prescribed to patients with tobacco-related lung disease.
Philip Morris’ interest in the company is to help generate it.”[…] At least $1 billion in annual net revenue from Beyond Nicotine Sources in 2025”. In other words, Philip Morris plans to expand the development of electronic cigarettes and profit from other inhaled devices.
This is despite limited evidence to support electronic cigarettes in helping people quit smoking, but mounting evidence is showing harmful health effects.
If Philip Morris really wants to go “beyond nicotine,” it must stop the aggressive promotion and sale of all of its tobacco products.
How does it matter?
The consequences of Philip Morris’s acquisition of Vectura are far-reaching, particularly for medical and research staff fighting respiratory disease. The acquisition of Philip Morris will have a significant impact on the sector.
Many public health organizations, medical professional bodies, universities, individual health professionals and researchers cannot and will not work with tobacco companies or their affiliates. This is in line with the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.
This means that researchers who may have received support from Vectura, or used its products to advance the next generation of inhaler treatments, may no longer be able to do so.
There would be conflicts of interest preventing them from publishing their findings, collaborating on grants for new research, and presenting their work at conferences.
Read more: Medical journal refuses to publish tobacco-funded research
This has already begun to happen, ending its sponsorship of drug industry conventions such as the Drug Delivery in the Lung convention, forcing Vectura’s representative to separate from its committee, and barring them from participation.
In the future, companies, healthcare professionals, and researchers who may no longer inadvertently link large tobacco through Vectura may be prohibited from participating fully in the medical and scientific community. For example, the European Respiratory Society excludes the participation of anyone involved in the tobacco industry in the past ten years.
The Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) will need to consider whether it is appropriate for Australian taxpayers to subsidize Vectura licensed inhaler devices or, more truthfully, large tobacco.
Many doctors will be looking for alternative devices for their patients that do not contribute to the profits of Philip Morris or Vectura.
Meanwhile, people with lung disease may also be reluctant to use large tobacco-infused devices.
But switching from one inhaler to another has consequences, such as reduced adherence and new side effects, leading to poor clinical outcomes.
There are also concerns Philip Morris’s acquisition of Vectura could be used to buy “a seat at the table” with health care policymakers and professionals, meaning they could have a say in the development of government policies.
The tobacco industry hasn’t changed
The tobacco industry is one of the deadliest industries in the world. And Philip Morris continues to undermine public health messages, trying to disguise itself as a health brand.
Yet Philip Morris’ company statutory regulations, which are the standard by which they do business, list evidence-based actions to reduce smoking rates – such as stronger health warnings on packets and a ban on smoking in public places – as a “risk factor” for its business.
Philip Morris’ move into the health sector, reinforced with the latest acquisition of Vectura, should be met with similar measures of hatred and contempt.