Big Tobacco’s new push into pharmacy vapes

5 July 2023

By Jolyon Attwooll, News GP

Documents seen by newsGP show how a tobacco giant is trying to corner the vaping market as the Government clamps down.

First there was the controversial ‘cash for vapes’ scheme in pharmacies last year, which disappeared into the ether almost as soon as sunlight fell upon it.
Now marketing material seen by newsGP gives fresh insight into how one of the world’s largest tobacco companies, Philip Morris International (PMI), is trying to make inroads into Australia’s pharmacy vaping market.
Documents aimed at pharmacies show an ‘introductory offer’ for the tobacco giant’s ‘VEEV’ vaping products, with an overall margin of 80% on the sale of both pods and vaping devices advertised for pharmacies that go into a supply agreement directly with PMI.
The link to the tobacco giant is only clear with a single reference in the small print at the bottom of the brochure.
VEEV brochures aimed at health professionals, including doctors, also spruik the products’ efficacy as a smoking cessation tool, with the link to PMI again only referenced in the small print.
It comes as the Federal Government undertakes a major campaign against recreational vaping, with measures aimed at stopping the import of all non-prescription vapes, and banning disposable vapes.
Under the current RACGP Smoking Cessation guidelines, vapes are recommended as a last-line treatment for smokers who have tried all other means of quitting.
For Professor Nick Zwar, Chair of the guidelines’ Expert Advisory Group, the marketing material highlights the need for GPs to be aware of the background of the products they prescribe.
‘If they’re prescribing nicotine vaping products, I think they would want to know if it was a product that was owned by a tobacco company,’ he told newsGP.
‘I don’t think many doctors would want to be in any way linked to the tobacco industry.’
He also queried whether Big Tobacco companies have any place in providing prescription products for therapeutic purposes.
‘They have historically sought to market nicotine-containing products, including combustible tobacco, to maximise profit at huge cost to human health and economies,’ he said.
‘Having the tobacco industry involved in products for therapeutic use …  is an enormous conflict of interest.
‘We’ve seen a previous attempt by this particular tobacco company to encourage pharmacists to stock their product.
‘This is another version of the same sort of idea, and I think it won’t be the last.’
Simon Chapman, Emeritus Professor of Public Health at the University of Sydney, also expressed strong concerns.
‘Globally, Philip Morris has been a fervent advocate for vapes to be sold as “consumer” goods with minimal restrictions,’ he told newsGP.
‘With legal sales now only permitted to those with a prescription, it is now seeking to work that law to its advantage.
‘By offering pharmacists an 80% margin on vapes, it clearly hopes to blow all competition out of the water.
‘If it succeeds in that, who would be surprised to see it actively work to foment the prescription scheme to founder and fail, thereby hoping to leverage the policy to be abandoned for the open access consumer model it really wants?’
While vapes are available to a consumer market in most Western countries – including Big Tobacco products – the Government is aiming to reinforce previous attempts at a prescription model.
Legislation for prescription-only vapes came into force in October 2021, but products still flooded the black market with limited measures in place to stop their import.
Since then, the increasing impact of vaping, particularly among young people, has been widely reported.
Only a relatively limited number of GPs have signed up to be authorised prescribers, with many reporting a small level of demand in their consulting rooms, or none at all.
In a speech to the Press Club in May, Federal Health and Aged Care Minister Mark Butler called the current situation ‘the biggest loophole in Australian history’ and outlined measures to attempt to address the issue.
When approached for comment about its marketing material and the appropriateness of Big Tobacco being involved in healthcare, a PMI spokesperson said the company is trying to abide by the new system.
‘The RACGP was involved in the development of the prescription vaping model, yet it criticises responsible operators like Philip Morris for participating in it, when so many other companies are fuelling the vaping black market,’ they told newsGP.
‘We call on the RACGP to join us in working to stamp out the black market for vaping products and ensure that those who choose to quit smoking through vaping, in consultation with their GP, do so through legal and regulated products like VEEV.’
However, Professor Chapman highlighted the billions of cigarette sales made by PMI globally each year and says that the company opposes policies which jeopardise that trade.  
‘Unlike many car manufacturers which have announced dates to end internal combustion engine sales, no tobacco company has announced when it will stop selling cigarettes,’ he said.
‘Many GPs will be understandably very uncomfortable prescribing a “cure” made by a company whose products continue to cause the very problem the cure purports to solve.’
A company is understood by newsGP to have been engaged by PMI to distribute sales and marketing material to pharmacies, and a number of pharmacy banner groups are believed to have signed up to direct deals.
They were approached for comment, but none responded in time for deadline.
Professor Zwar, meanwhile, said he remains hopeful that new Government measures will have a positive impact.
‘Australia has been a world leader in in tobacco control, and we have a unique model here where we are seeking to have nicotine vaping products only available to help people stop smoking who haven’t succeeded with other methods,’ he said.
‘We’re in a unique position, and we don’t have to go down the same road as the rest of the world.
‘We can forge our own path and try to get maximum benefit for health from nicotine vaping products.’
A spokesperson for Minister Butler reiterated the Government’s commitment to reducing access to vapes for recreational purposes.
They said the Federal Government is working with states and territories to close down the sale of vapes in retail settings, as well as to make it easier to get a vape prescription for legitimate therapeutic use.