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Conflicts of Interest: Pharma (NRT), E-Cigarettes, Tobacco and the Consumers Health

The strength of the pharmaceutical lobby may result in the banning of electronic cigarettes. Evidence suggest this and it is despite e-cigarettes appearing to be a far more effective way to aid people looking to give up smoking than the Pharma’s lobbied alternatives, categorised under the name, Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT). Unfortunately in the case E-Cigarettes vs. NRT money seems to be talking and some estimates suggest that the Pharma lobby is spending almost £80m annually in trying to direct the EU down their road, of pro NRT/anti e-smoking devices. If the Pharma lobby is successful in its efforts this is effectively industry sponsored legislation and in part could halt supply of a potentially society changing technology which has been praised by the UK’s National Health Service. It is certainly a worry and something that flies in the face of government responsibility to look after its citizens’ health.

NRT Tobacoo & E-Cigarettes

There are some interesting facts about the tobacco industry:

  • The UK market alone for tobacco is worth well over £10 billion annually.
  • Almost 90% of the costs of a packet of cigarettes is tax; excise duty and VAT.

With or without the tax it adds up to a significant market for business and a serious revenue earner for government. It is no surprise therefore that there are many companies competing for their share of that revenue whether it be urging consumers to continue smoking tobacco, swapping tobacco for a nicotine based substitute or genuinely helping to cut out both the nicotine and the tobacco habit for the smoker.

Dilemma of NRT, Tobacco & E-Cigarettes

In the case of government there is a dilemma of course and that is the impact that tobacco has on the health of the population vs. commerce and tax revenues. Conservative estimates suggest that around 20% of the adult population of the UK smoke. That is some 10 million people; the best that can be said is that figure has reduced from a generation or two ago. However, despite the huge revenues generated from tobacco tax there is no denying that in the UK’s case tobacco health care is a huge drain on the countries health services budget. There is a significant cost for the NHS and the Treasury Budgets in general.

The value of the market for products to help people give up tobacco is growing all the time. It is another substantial target for business. There is plenty of advice about giving up smoking. Some find it easier than others. Just recently an English International footballer was photographed smoking and condemned for doing so. The criticism was because it would have an undoubted impact on his ability to play professional sport. However, could it also promote a Tobacco industry which many businesses are fighting to move consumers away from, whether it be E-Cigarettes or NRT?

Giving up

  • The lucky ones are able to stop smoking without too much trouble; they are in the minority.
  • Many have tried patches and pills.
  • Many have been persuaded to use NRT
  • Recently people have begun to use electronic cigarettes in an attempt to kick the habit.

With regards to E-Cigarettes there is a problem; the World Health Organisation (WHO) seems likely to deem them as tobacco products. Many countries including the UK are obliged to fall in line with the WHO decisions. If electronic cigarettes come under the heading of tobacco they will be taxed accordingly. Thus increasing consumer costs and limiting availability.

Worrying EU stance

The EU it seems is of a like mind; it is likely to argue that there is not enough evidence of the effectiveness of electronic cigarettes as a solution to smoking.  They may even be banned. Cynics are suggesting that banning electronic cigarettes is in fact surrendering to the powerful pharmaceutical lobby that clearly is determined to retain its slice of the ‘tobacco market.’ The lobby is interested in promoting NRT and is opposed to anything that takes away its monopoly. In the UK over 1m people have tried electronic cigarettes. That has got alarm bells ringing in the pharmaceutical industry, protective of its products to combat smoking.

At stake

The NRT market is currently worth almost £120m in the UK alone and the industry is reluctant to give any of that away. Throughout the EU the figures are much larger for NRT. It is estimated up to £400m is currently spent annually on electronic cigarettes. A ban across the EU would certainly bring a smile back on the faces of the NRT advocates. As their attentions would be turned not to saving their current market share but to collecting a piece of the vacated E-Cigarette industry.

While the debate continues there are plans in the UK to classify electronic cigarettes as medicinal from 2016. There will be an increase in regulation as a result.

  • Prior to this date manufacturers will be encouraged to apply for licences for their products.
  • That would mean that consumers could be certain of what they are buying and using.

Early Evidence but Money Talks

It is early days along the road to proving e-smoking devices true value but they are certainly less harmful than smoking real cigarettes. What is also the case is that they are proving far more effective at getting people to give up smoking than any of the NRT alternatives.

It is ironic that it is not the tobacco industry that is the biggest opponent of the electronic cigarette industry despite the size of the tobacco market; it is the pharmaceutical industry. It highlights the dangers of powerful pressure groups. Their influence is all pervasive and reaches out even to the media and that can influence public perception. In addition it is rare indeed that anyone needs to own up to receiving any material benefit for promoting an idea or policy. Therein lies the problem. Money is talking and it may lead to unwarranted restrictions on electronic cigarettes and other e-smoking devices.

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