This article is part of the special report: The Big Vaping Dilemma.
Big Pharma has Big Tobacco in its sights.
The drugs industry is objecting to the marketing of e-cigarettes and vape pens as a way to quit cancer-causing cigarettes.
Pharmaceutical companies, which sell their own quitting alternatives like nicotine patches and chewing gum, argue that tobacco and vaping companies are playing both sides of the street, hawking the health benefits of their products without having to undergo the lengthy and expensive approval processes required for medical products.
“If therapeutic claims or claims of cessation of tobacco are made they should be subject to a medicinal regulatory framework,” drugmaker Johnson & Johnson told POLITICO in a written statement.
The collision between tobaccos clouds of vanilla smoke and pharmas cubes of mint gum comes just as the European Commission is set to begin a review of the EUs key tobacco law: the Tobacco Products Directive, which regulates both traditional and electronic cigarettes.
E-cigarettes sit in a tantalizing regulatory gray area between existing tobacco laws and drug approval processes.
“We need to raise a word of caution to regulators and stakeholders by saying that if youre going to treat people it should be with the most effective thing and the safest thing — and at the moment there are still questions about [e-cigarettes],” said Andrew Widger, a Pfizer spokesman.
At stake: Who will take the larger share of the Europes market for smoking cessation. Globally, the market was worth some €14 billion in 2018, according to a report by the consultancy Kenneth Research.
E-cigarettes sit in a tantalizing regulatory gray area between existing tobacco laws and drug approval processes. If tobacco companies can convince regulators that e-cigarettes dont merit the scrutiny patches and gum receive, the competitive advantage could be decisive.
A study of global smoking trends by the Foundation for a Smoke Free World, a New York-based anti-smoking organization backed by the tobacco giant Philip Morris International, found sales of vapor-based smoking products rose nearly 37 percent in 2017. Sales of pharmaceutical nicotine products rose by only by 2.5 percent.
Pharma lobbying against e-cigarettes began as far back as 2013 | Eva Hambach/AFP via Getty Images
Lobbyists for one tobacco company and a vaping trade organization, both based in Brussels, have accused pharmaceutical companies of sponsoring anti-smoking NGOs as a backdoor lobby against e-cigarettes.
They point to a conference in March in Romania on tobacco control organized by the European Network for Smoking and Tobacco Prevention (ENSP) for which three of the four sponsors were pharma companies: Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline.
“It would be weird” if Big Pharma didnt take the fight to the tobacco companies, said Martin Cullip, chair of the New Nicotine Alliance, a U.K. charity promoting tobacco harm reduction. “Its a competition for market share.”
Fighting in public
Pharma lobbying against e-cigarettes began as far back as 2013, when the Tobacco Products Directive that is now up for review was first being drafted. British drugmaker GSK spearheaded the 2013 effort to see e-cigarettes undergo the same type of testing as other nicotine-based products.
The effort failed. The Commission decided against obliging all e-cigarettes to go through medicinal approval, subjecting only those delivering high amounts of nicotine to the regulations. The rest could be treated as consumer products provided they feature health warnings.
Johnson & Johnson responded with a U.K. billboard campaign for Nicorette QuickMist, an oral spray, that explicitly encouraged customers to use the pharmaceutical product “to quit for good,” instead of vaping.
In Brussels, tobacco and vaping representatives have come together to launch a petition calling for loser regulation of vaping.
E-cigarette producers labeled the campaign an attempt by pharma to smear electronic cigarettes. The drugmaker countered that no e-cigarette has been licensed as a medicinal product to help people quit smoking.
Last year it was Johnson & Johnsons turn to complain. The American drugmaker attacked the U.K. Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA), claiming it had illegally promoted e-cigarettes as a way to quit smoking without authorization from the U.K. Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, Britains drug regulator.
The drugmaker also alleged that UKVIA had hired a doctor to promote e-cigarettes and had claimed smoking e-cigarettes is beneficial for asthma patients, violating British advertising rules.
Promoters smoking electronic cigarettes during the Vape Fair in Kuala Lumpur | Mohd Rasfan/AFP via Getty Images
UKVIA, which lists several tobacco and vaping companies as members, dismissed the allegations. “That a major pharmaceutical company would feel able to pressurize the vaping industry in this way illustrates the confusion and unfairness created by the current advertising rules,” it said in a statement.
In Brussels, tobacco and vaping representatives have come together to launch a petition calling for looser regulation of vaping on the basis that its less harmful than tobacco.