Study: Tobacco firms tried to weaken anti-smoking aids
Tobacco companies used their financial connections with companies making nicotine gum and patches to weaken the sales message of those anti-smoking products, according to internal industry documents.
Those same documents suggest that in one case, pharmaceutical and tobacco divisions of the same Swedish firm, Procordia, respectively marketed a nicotine gum to help people quit smoking and a tobacco chewing gum designed to keep the nicotine habit going.
Out Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the report by Bhava Shamasunder and Lisa Bero of the University of California-San Francisco describes 187 tobacco-firm documents released as part of the industry's settlement of damage claims with state officials.
Two of the smoking-cessation products mentioned in the study, Nicorette gum and Habitrol patches, are now well-established ways for smokers to try to feed their addiction to nicotine while kicking cigarettes. Last year, Nicorette gum sales reached $299 million.
The study documents reveal three cases, Bero says, of surprising financial ties between tobacco firms and drug firms that made nicotine products aimed at weaning people off their addiction.
Nicorette gum. In 1984, tobacco firm Phillip Morris canceled chemical sales from Dow Chemical while complaining about the gum, then made by one of Dow's divisions and now sold by GlaxoSmithKline. In response, Dow killed an anti-smoking newsletter that was part of the gum's sales campaign and stopped donations to groups such as the National Interagency Council on Smoking and Health. Phillip Morris then resumed its chemical purchases.
Habitrol patches. In 1992, Novartis, then Ciba-Geigy, found its agricultural-chemicals division lobbied by tobacco companies angry about its patch. The agricultural and pharmaceutical divisions of the firm set "ground rules" on Habitrol advertising so that henceforth its ads would not have an anti-smoking theme, according to the internal memos.
Masterpiece Tobacs. In 1987, the Swedish firm Procordia AB had a controlling interest in a tobacco company that marketed this nicotine-laced gum, aimed at smokers for times when they couldn't smoke, and a drug company that made a gum for smokers trying to quit.
"These cases are historical, but there is no reason to believe these financial ties have gone away," says Bero. "I don't see any evidence corporate responsibility has improved lately," she says, noting recent business scandals.
Pharmaceutical firms disagree.
"I think the report is misleading," says Lori Kraut of Aventis, formerly Marion Merrell Dow, the Dow subsidiary that formerly sold Nicorette. "The aggressive nature of our marketing shows a serious effort was made to reach patients." During 1992, sales of the Nicoderm patch made by the firm were so intense that the product had to be rationed, she says.
GlaxoSmithKline, which now sells Nicorette, has no relations with tobacco firms and is a single company that sells health-care products only, says firm spokesman Brian Jones. He notes the company helps fund the American Cancer Society and "dozens" of other groups devoted to helping smokers quit.
The report is "really poorly written medical history," says John Kelly of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). Regardless of whatever contacts existed between companies, pharmaceutical firms made a great effort to market both Nicorette and Habitrol to physicians, as evidenced by the firms' support for dozens of studies of the treatment, ads in medical journals and elsewhere, he says.
Still, "the idea of tobacco companies influencing pharmaceutical firms is very, very worrisome," says Richard Levinson, head of the American Public Health Association. Each year, tobacco use causes one in five deaths nationwide, according to the National Cancer Institute.