Respiratory groups slam Big Tobacco plan to pay pharmacies for vaping promotion

Respiratory professional groups and doctor organisations have slammed reports that Big Tobacco will enter into commercial agreements with community pharmacies to promote the sale of nicotine e-cigarettes, ostensibly for smoking cessation.

The multinational tobacco company Philip Morris is reportedly offering cash incentives to Australian pharmacists in return for spruiking one of its vaping products.

Under the program, pharmacies will reportedly receive a $275 payment from the tobacco giant when they order a “VEEV” e-cigarette, but also a $5 fee when they refer customers to a GP to obtain a vaping prescription.

There is also a $10 fee for “educating” a new patient about the device, and even a “dispensing support payment” of $5 every time they dispense a new script of the product.

The payments were detailed in a News Corp article, which said they had been outlined in a leaked invitation to pharmacists to participate in the “VEEV Pharmacy Program” run by a pharmacy IT solutions company called PharmaPrograms.

The move has been strongly condemned by doctor groups, anti-smoking campaigners and respiratory professional bodies.

Lung Foundation Australia urged pharmacists to not engage with the tobacco industry giant and said it would boycott any pharmacy involved.

“[The] tobacco industry has no place in healthcare – and should have not have the ability to provide incentives (financial or other) to healthcare professionals, directly or indirectly,” it said in a statement released on 4 August.

LFA said all current evidence shows nicotine vaping products do not have substantial evidence to be used as smoking cessation aids.

“Whilst the launch of the VEEV Pharmacy Program has now been postponed, Lung Foundation Australia plead to pharmacists and pharmacies to not sign up to any scheme associated directly or indirectly with Big Tobacco, as it will undermine the trust that Australians have on their local pharmacist and contribute to poorer health outcomes for the community,” it said.

“LFA will not work with any pharmacy or pharmacist who is involved, and reiterate the importance of ensuring public health is separated from Big Tobacco, their subsidiaries, and lobbyists. This is just another reason we need a revitalised National Tobacco Strategy. ”

TSANZ chief executive Dr Graham Hall (PhD) described the move as “cynical and underhanded”.

“It’s also unusual because we haven’t previously seen Big Tobacco providing this kind of intervention around health care treatments because before nicotine-containing vapes became a prescription item, they just pushed them in the general public,” he said.

“So, Philip Morris and other Big Tobacco associated with vapes are clearly trying to get more people vaping. That’s their business model, but as we know, these are not harmless products.”

However, he stopped short of calling for a boycott of pharmacies which took up the offer.

Nevertheless, he said: “I think it would be deeply concerning if any commercial pharmacy chain were negotiating commercial agreements with big tobacco. If that did come to light, that would be a really serious issue and I would expect the Pharmacy Guild of Australia.”

Doctor outrage

The RACGP was also quick to voice its outrage, labelling the initiative a “cynical cash for vapes scheme”.

RACGP President Dr Karen Price said that the scheme had the potential to ruin community trust in their local pharmacy.

“I urge all pharmacists to resist the lure of Big Tobacco cash and not take part in this diabolic scheme,” she said.

“Tobacco companies are nothing short of inventive when it comes to attracting new nicotine users. I honestly never thought a scheme like this would be part of their plans but here we are.”

“Once again, I urge pharmacists in the strongest possible terms to walk away from this scheme and for those at PharmaPrograms to take a good look at themselves and what sort of deals they are signing up to.”

It follows demands last year to boycott a number of popular inhaler products after Philip Morris International launched a takeover bid for Vectura, a UK company specialising in inhaler technology.

In Australia at least 10 different dry powder inhalers used patents made by the company, including four distributed by Novartis, five sold by GlaxoSmithKline and one by Mundipharma.

The Lung Health Alliance eventually released a statement stressing it did not encourage patients or health care professionals to alter treatment plans involving Vectura-linked medications although it “expressed strong concern and opposition” to the company’s ownership by Philip Morris.

It’s not the first time the relationship between pharmacists and the tobacco industry has come under scrutiny.

Last year, the Australasian College of Pharmacy signed a financial deal with Philip Morris to sending out sponsored content to its members on changes to vaping regulations.

The deal was quickly cancelled after a public outcry, but not before the college sent out a 700-word email to members in October which was “supported by an unrestricted educational grant from Philip Morris International”.

A subsidiary of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, the college also stressed no money had exchanged hands before it pulled the plug on the deal.

Both Philip Morris and PharmaPrograms defended the latest offer.

“It is incorrect to say that pharmacists are paid for providing patients with a referral letter recommending VEEV. Under no circumstances will a referral contain a recommendation for any brand,” a spokesman for PharmaPrograms said.

“Under this scheme pharmacists must dispense the product specified by the doctor, and may not substitute a different brand.”

“Financial support to pharmacists for buying stock and educating patients is very common in the industry. This program is no different to other pharmaceutical programs.”

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