E-Cigarette Competitors Fund Critics’ Research

Published May 17, 2017

Jeff Stier, a risk analyst for the National Center for Public Policy Analysis, once signed up for NYC Quits, a government tobacco-control program giving away free nicotine patches and gum every year, out of curiosity.

“I got a few free nicotine patches,” Stier said. “I was interested in seeing if I could feel the nicotine, but the next morning in the shower, I felt something strange on my skin and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I forgot!’ It was imperceptible.”

Stier says he’s alarmed by the government’s support of the patch as a smoking-cessation product.

“If you’re a smoker and you want nicotine, this product is going to do nothing for most people,” Stier said.

The patch is one of four nicotine replacement therapies (NRT) approved by the Food and Drug Administration to help people quit smoking. The three others are Nicotrol NS, a nicotine nasal spray, and Chantix and Zyban, non-nicotine medications. All three do not require a prescription.

Studies show e-cigarettes might also belong on the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) list. Researchers have found e-cigarettes are 95 percent less harmful than the combustible version and have helped 6.1 million people in Europe quit smoking. Another nine million Europeans cut back on their habit, which means 15.1 million smokers in the European Union have quit or curtailed an activity that kills 400,000 Americans per year by using a product that’s 95 percent less harmful.

Protecting People or Protecting Businesses?

Instead of adding e-cigarettes to its approved list, the FDA, the stated mission of which is “protecting the public health,” warns against their use based on “potential health risks.”

“So, people who have tried repeatedly to quit and failed don’t have other choices that the public-health establishment supports,” Stier said.

Conflict of Interest?

That “establishment” is getting help from medical researchers funded by large pharmaceutical companies that benefit from FDA-approved tobacco-harm-reduction policies.

The prestigious Minnesota-based Mayo Clinic and its Nicotine Dependence Center, for example, have followed FDA’s lead in telling people to avoid e-cigarettes as a smoking-cessation alternative because of a lack of risk data and the “mixed results” produced by the studies conducted thus far.

Mayo Clinic addiction expert and researcher Dr. Jon Ebbert has been an outspoken critic of e-cigarettes for several years. The star of Mayo Clinic in-house podcasts and videos, Ebbert has repeatedly advised against e-cigarettes.

“I think we need to be very clear as clinicians that these electronic cigarettes have an unknown safety profile,” Ebbert said in Mayo Clinic videos published in 2015 and 2016.

Pfizer makes Nicotrol NS, a nicotine nasal spray, and Chantix. The company’s website and the ProPublica database show Ebbert received $646,584 in government grants between 2010 and 2014. GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), which produces Zyban and Nicorette gum and lozenges, paid Ebbert $7,129 in consulting fees in 2010 and 2011.

The Mayo Clinic, Ebbert, and GSK did not respond to requests for comment.  

Pfizer sent a statement saying physicians offer companies vital feedback and advice grounded in their expertise and clinical practice experience, and there’s nothing wrong with those companies paying for it.

Scaring Consumers

Boston University public health professor and tobacco-control expert Dr. Michael Siegel says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevent is also working against e-cigarettes.

“It’s a phenomenon in the entire e-cigarette industry,” Siegel said. “Nowhere do [researchers] actually come out and say e-cigarettes are a lot safer than cigarettes and there’s a huge relative risk difference between the two.

“They’re really using scare tactics to demonize e-cigarettes,” Siegel said. “It’s going to convince many smokers who might otherwise have quit by switching to e-cigs to not quit.”

Self-Funded Science

Facing a regulatory burden that could cost $77 million in compliance costs each year, the vaping industry sees the pharmaceutical companies’ massive research footprint as an effort to squeeze out competition.

Lou Ritter, president emeritus of the American E-Liquid Manufacturers Association (AEMSA), a trade organization that develops safe manufacturing standards for the liquids used in vaping products, says self-funding scientific research is the standard in most industries, but it’s not the norm for pharmaceutical companies.

“Every other industry funds its own science,” Ritter said in a March 25 conference call hosted by the E-Vaping Coalition of America. “They’re just big corporations that are out there competing, and they have a lot more money. [Vaping] is the first industry that has really come up through consumer incentivization and consumer motivation, so there isn’t a lot of money in one place.”

Ritter was invited to a workshop in February held by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine as part of an FDA directive to review existing research on the health effects of electronic nicotine delivery systems and identify future federally funded research needs. The report is due for release at the end of 2017 or early 2018.

Kathy Hoekstra ([email protected]) is a regulatory policy reporter for Watchdog.org. An earlier version of this article was published at http://watchdog.org/292762/e-cigarette-critics-get-research-dollars-from-big-pharma-competition/. Reprinted with permission.