Jan. 21, 2022 — A tobacco giant has stepped into the health care business, and respiratory specialists are doing their best to thwart the move.
The Forum of International Respiratory Societies, which has 70,000 members worldwide, has served “official notice” that its organizations and members “cannot condone” working with any firm “wholly owned by a tobacco company such as Philip Morris International,” the group says in a statement.
Health professionals lobbied in the fall of 2021 to block the sale of British inhaler manufacturer Vectura to tobacco company Philip Morris. But the £1.1 billion (or about $1.5 billion) acquisition was completed in September with nearly 75% of Vectura shareholders backing the deal.
“This takeover is a dark episode for lung health and health in general and should not be repeated in the future,” the respiratory specialists said in their statement. “Tobacco products remain the leading cause of preventable death and disease worldwide.”
The specialists say they are “terribly disappointed” that shareholders, regulators, and the U.K. government allowed it to move forward. “This is just the latest example of tobacco companies diversifying into health care, and we are very concerned about the implications for patients, scientists, and doctors.”
Gregory Downey, MD, president-elect of the American Thoracic Society, is among doctors voicing concerns.
“We could not, in good conscience, remain silent with regard to Philip Morris’ actions,” he said in an email. “We will continue to work with our Forum of International Respiratory Societies partners to protect patients and to reduce the global impact of tobacco addiction.”
A key concern: The technology currently used to deliver medicine to treat respiratory illnesses can now be used to more efficiently deliver addictive, nonmedical products.
In response, Philip Morris International says the speculation the technology will be used for tobacco is “entirely false and without basis.”
The company issued a statement saying that as it diversifies into health care, it intends to increase the total level of spending on medical research and development at Vectura, “speeding up innovations that will make treatment more effective and affordable for patients.”
Doctors like Downey worry that tobacco company scientific and sales tactics will re-enter the medical field and harm the public.
“Past scientific misconduct by the industry has sown justifiable mistrust on the part of respiratory researchers and clinicians,” the specialists say in their statement. “Unified as a community, our organizations will continue to strenuously oppose future acquisitions of health care companies by the tobacco industry.”
The group urges governments to pass legislation, and scientists are planning bold steps, such as a ban on employees of tobacco-owned enterprises like Vectura, a company with a 20-year history in health care, from publishing papers in their journals or presenting at future meetings.
In the journal BMJ, editorial writer Nicholas Hopkinson, from the British Lung Foundation, says “the leopard has not changed its spots.”
Tobacco companies have an “exhaustively documented history of dishonesty on an industrial scale,” he says. “This includes lying about the harms of smoking, propagating bogus science and misrepresenting the impact of measures to curb smoking as well as widespread disinformation, and engaging in corrupt practices.”
Specialists are now calling on health care professionals to not prescribe products from a tobacco-owned company. No such products will be promoted at future group events, including educational and scientific meetings, or at any conferences, they say. This follows the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, they say.
Responding to the public notice, Philip Morris International says it would “set a dangerous precedent” if the lobbying and exclusion efforts of a handful of organizations were to succeed.
One of the main questions in this debate boils down to the folks who simply want their medication to be effective when they need it: Does it matter who makes and sells it?
In making its case, Philip Morris claims that public opinion is not on the side of choosing a treatment based on who makes it. A survey of more than 2,000 adults in the United States and the United Kingdom, done by Povaddo on behalf of Philip Morris, shows that “65% of respondents stated that it would be inappropriate for their doctor to switch them to a new treatment based solely on his or her personal opinion of the manufacturer, even if the medical treatment itself remained exactly the same,” and nearly half (49%) said that the least important thing for a doctor to consider when deciding which treatment to prescribe is “the company that makes the treatment.”
For the those who took the survey, having a treatment that will be successful was the most important thing.