(Bloomberg) – When Moira Gilchrist was first approached by Philip Morris International Inc., she wondered what a tobacco company wanted from a scientist who had previously worked on clinical trials of cancer drugs .
The world’s largest cigarette maker was looking for ways to deliver nicotine in a product that reduced harmful chemicals from smoking and needed its expertise to navigate the highly regulated pharmaceutical industry. Gilchrist, a cigarette smoker at the time, took the plunge in 2006 – much to the shock of his friends and colleagues – becoming one of the first people in the pharmaceutical industry to join Big Tobacco, seen by many as the enemy. of health.
“I thought that if they could get it right, it might be a solution for me personally, but also for everyone else on the planet who, like me, light up cigarettes despite the risks,” said Gilchrist.
Fifteen years later, Philip Morris, whose brands include Marlboro and Chesterfield, generates a quarter of its $ 28 billion in net sales from smoke-free products, and aims to increase that share to more than half by 2025 IQOS, the device Gilchrist helped develop, has created a whole new line of business for the tobacco industry, prompting competitors like British American Tobacco Plc and Imperial Brands Plc to scramble to keep pace.
The smoke-free revolution is also a necessity: cigarette sales in the developed world are declining and government regulations are tightening. The United States is considering a total ban on menthol cigarettes, while Brookline, a suburb of Boston, will ban the sale of tobacco to anyone born in this century.
While smoking trends only go one way, Geneva-based Philip Morris, who split from Altria Group Inc. in the United States ten years ago, is looking for revenue elsewhere, even in systems drug distribution.
In one of its boldest and most controversial initiatives to date, the company announced this month that it would acquire British asthma drug maker Vectura Group Plc, a deal that would add new expertise in devices, inhalation, regulatory and clinical manufacturing. Coupled with its recent takeover of Fertin Pharma A / S, manufacturer of chewing gum and nicotine lozenges used for pain relievers, Philip Morris is arming itself to accelerate the development of new nicotine-free products.
But efforts to reinvent cigarettes have not dampened skepticism among anti-smoking groups that Philip Morris is truly aiming for a smoke-free future.
They argue that the company and its rivals are keeping nicotine addicted consumers with new alternative products that range from heated tobacco from IQOS, vaping, and discreet sachets that can be pushed between the gums and lips – and consider recent ones. acquisitions as disturbing. For some, there is simply something wrong with a tobacco company that owns a business that makes drugs to treat respiratory illnesses.
Cancer Research UK said of the Vectura news that if Philip Morris were to really help, “they could stop aggressively promoting and selling their products.”
Vectura could also be damaged by the stigma of tobacco undermining its credibility in healthcare. The takeover could see her rejected by industry associations and prevented from publishing articles or presenting data. The constitution and statutes of the European Respiratory Society, for example, reject any connection – even perceived – with the tobacco industry.
While there are ethical concerns about the takeover, the biggest threat to the deal could be a competing offer from Carlyle Group Inc. The private equity group had previously agreed to buy Vectura until it was released. ‘he is defeated by Philip Morris, and he now examines his options, increasing the prospect of a battle for control.
For Jacek Olczak, CEO of Philip Morris, ownership concerns are not justified. While three-quarters of its income comes from fuels, the majority of its investments are now in smokeless and so-called beyond nicotine products, he says.
“My reaction to ‘who’s the owner?’ and that’s what dictates opinion about something, it’s a path that leads nowhere, ”Olczak said in an interview with Bloomberg News. “Our aspiration is to solve the smoking problem, and it is not a dream without substance – the technology for it exists.”
The acquisitions of Vectura and Fertin provide the company with major entry points for offers beyond nicotine. This includes expertise in oral and respiratory drug deliveries to accelerate expansion in the wellness industry, with products such as herbs that boost energy or help sleep, as well as devices for use. medical potential.
Vectura is also exploring inhalation as a way to treat non-respiratory illnesses such as pulmonary vascular disease, cancer and even Covid-19.
Philip Morris chairman Andre Calantzopolous cites the example of a heart attack sufferer who can chew an aspirin to slow down and reduce the size of a developing blood clot. But in a dire situation, it may not start to work quickly enough.
“If you inhale it, the bioavailability is a few minutes, and it can save a lot of lives,” Calantzopolous said. He added that the goal of PMI is not to discover new treatments, but to find ways to speed up the therapeutic delivery of existing treatments, since inhalation is the second fastest way for the molecules of d ‘enter the bloodstream outside of the injection.
Product development is accompanied by campaigning and lobbying, areas in which Big Tobacco has a troubled history that fosters suspicion of the industry.
Earlier this year, Ruth Malone, professor at the University of California at San Francisco and editor of the journal Tobacco Control, wrote an op-ed in the British Medical Journal criticizing the tobacco industry’s adoption of the cut. harms as a means of weakening tobacco control and picking up the talk about their products.
Gilchrist has repeatedly challenged the view on Twitter, asking the BMJ to release its response which pointed out that the vast majority of smokers don’t quit but still want better alternatives to cigarettes. The journal rejected his rebuttal as PR, and Gilchrist ultimately posted his response to the Qeios open science forum instead.
Given how difficult it is for some smokers to quit, some authorities, like Public Health England, are taking a more relaxed stance on new products, saying they can be a tool to help people. The United States Food and Drug Administration has cleared IQOS for sale as a modified risk tobacco product, which means the switch can reduce a person’s exposure to harmful chemicals.
Much of Philip Morris’ future lies in The Cube, his research center on the shores of Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland. In one room, dozens of machines test heated tobacco sticks to make sure they last the promised 14 puffs for a six-minute window. In another, a chamber full of IQOS puffs is measured for particles and toxicity. Some tests are done on what is called “lung-on-a-chip,” reconstructed lung tissue used for laboratory tests.
Hundreds of experts have been hired in the medical, pharmaceutical, life sciences and electronics, as well as communications industries to develop these new products and present opponents with statistics and scientific evidence.
The ease with which Philip Morris hires such new employees today contrasts with the arrival of Gilchrist. At the time, hiring in the pharmaceutical industry was more difficult because the company stayed focused on its smoke-free plans and people were more reluctant to join an industry linked to illness and premature death.
“There were those who said, ‘What? Why?’ and others who said I absolutely shouldn’t be doing this, ”said Gilchrist. “For years people scratched their heads wondering what I was doing.”
Today, she says, the company is receiving numerous resumes as people increasingly put aside the ethical issues of tobacco and focus on changing the industry.
Yet many activists are far from being influenced.
“They are desperate enough to position themselves as ‘part of the solution’ to the problems they have created by aggressively marketing products designed to be as addictive as possible,” said Malone. “This is the result of their long-term strategic plan to divide and conquer the tobacco control movement, exploiting their ‘harm reduction’ versions.
(Michael R. Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News, parent company of Bloomberg LP, is a longtime champion of tobacco control efforts.)
(Updates to add details about the potential takeover battle with Carlyle.)
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