Rachel Fieldhouse


Tobacco giant angers medical community

Tobacco giant angers medical community

Philip Morris International has made a £1 billion bid to take over a company that makes inhalers used to treat lung disease, sparking outrage in the medical community.

The tobacco company behind the Marlboro man has made an offer to buy Vectura, a UK company that develops inhaler technology for lung illnesses.

Medical experts are concerned that the takeover could see Philip Morris profiting from the treatment of smoking-related lung diseases it has helped create.

“If they buy Vectura, Philip Morris will then be making money not only from selling cigarettes that cause lung disease, but they’ll also be making money from the technologies that treat patients who have lung disease caused by smoking,” respiratory pathologist and chief executive of the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand Graham Hall said.

Changes to research and treatment 

As a result, many are concerned that research and the treatments doctors prescribe to patients with lung disease could change to avoid directing funds to the tobacco giant.

For some of the 464,000 Australians with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) who use Vectura inhalers, this could result in the prescription of different medications by their doctors.

Image: healthflexhhs.com

COPD describes a group of diseases that affect the lungs, including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and chronic asthma, which cause a progressive decline in lung health.

Up to 50 percent of smokers develop COPD to some level.

“How can we in good conscience give a treatment to a patient where the funding from that treatment will be going to the company that caused the disease to begin with?” asked Professor Hall.

“No doctor is going to want to prescribe a treatment to a patient, that they know may be funding a tobacco company.”

Research into these diseases could also be at risk, as many doctors, health bodies, and journals have policies banning professionals from dealing with tobacco companies.

“Cutting-edge research would be able to be published in these journals if there was known links to Vectura if it’s acquired by Philip Morris,” Professor Hall said.

‘Indirectly’ funding tobacco companies

Currently, Australians are prescribed any of 10 different dry powder inhalers that use technology made by Vectura.

In 2020, 2 million scripts for different brands of these inhalers were dispensed and cost about $121 million to taxpayers, according to figures from the federal government’s Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS).

Though most of the profits go directly to the pharmaceutical company, Vectura has licensing and royalty deals with companies that use its technology, meaning it gets some of the funds as well.

“It could be the situation where the Australian government is paying taxpayers’ funding indirectly to a tobacco company to treat patients who have lung disease caused by tobacco,” Professor Hall said.

But, the result could put Australia in a breach of a global treaty it signed and ratified on tobacco control.

Since the inhalers are subsidised under the PBS, the government would indirectly funding Philip Morris, violating the treaty.

“It’s a UN tobacco control treaty and it’s been signed and ratified by more than 180 countries, including the UK, including Australia,” Melbourne-based GP Dr Bronwyn King said.

“One of the provisions of the treaty is that it explicitly prohibits engagement between governments and the tobacco industry.”

A spokesperson for the federal Health Department said the government was closely monitoring tobacco activities, but the ABC reports they were unaware of the 10 products on the PBS which used Vectura technology.

The takeover bid has already been approved by Vectura’s board, and will go before the company’s shareholders in London.

Image: Getty Images

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