Inhaler technology faces boycott after ‘unethical’ takeover by tobacco giant


By Selina Wellbelove

22 Sep 2021

Inhaler technology company Vectura’s shareholders have backed a £1.1 billion takeover offer from tobacco giant Philip Morris International (PMI), giving a green light for the controversial deal to proceed amid strong objection from the healthcare community.

PMI said it had bought shares or received offer acceptances to a total share of the company equating to just under 75%, comfortably above the 50% needed for the takeover.

However, the European Respiratory Society (ERS) said it would continue to campaign against the takeover by urging UK regulators to intervene.

“It’s clear that this takeover is not suitable, ethical, or in the best public interest. A tobacco company cannot be allowed to profit from the medicines used to treat the illnesses that its products cause,” said Professor Jonathan Grigg, Chair of the ERS Tobacco Control Committee.

The ERS, in conjunction with other groups such as the European Lung Foundation, Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation have written to the UK government summarising experts’ continued concerns over the deal.

“The tobacco industry has an extremely poor reputation and PMI in particular has been accused of running marketing campaigns that target children and was taken to court for complicity with tobacco smuggling to boost its own profits, leading to a $1.25 billion settlement with the EU. There is evidence that it continues to fail to control its supply chain with many of its cigarettes ending up in the illegal market,” the letter noted.

“PMI and other tobacco companies have a long history of subverting tobacco control policies for their own financial gain and of research manipulation, and concerns have been raised that such conduct may be ongoing with irregularities reported in their recent clinical studies. For these reasons, we have strongly opposed the takeover from the beginning.”

Bans and boycotts 

The British Thoracic Society (BTS) said it was “disappointed and concerned” at shareholder backing for the move. “Vectura, a company that for over 20 years has worked to treat lung disease, is now part of the tobacco industry … This is inappropriate, unethical and should have been prevented,” the Society said.

As such, on completion of the deal, Vectura – and any other company involved in the tobacco industry – will no longer be approved for participation in any Society Conference or meeting, nor will any paper it has funded be published in its journals.

Indeed, just hours after news of the deal’s progress emerged, Vectura was blocked from sponsoring and taking part in the Formulation and Delivery UK conference, according to the Guardian; emails seen by the newspaper showed strong objection from clinicians to Vectura’s participation in the event.

Other potential repercussions of the deal for Vectura include a widespread boycott of the company and its products by academics, patients and clinicians, as well as the loss of access to government research grants.

“We know that healthcare professionals will be concerned about the ethical conflict of prescribing inhalers that will now generate an income for the tobacco industry, as tobacco products are often the cause of certain respiratory diseases to begin with. Many patients will also be aware of this conflict and may wish  to consider using alternative drugs, if safe and appropriate,” Dr Lisa Spencer, Honorary Secretary of the BTS, told the limbic.

“Our priority is, and will always be, the safety of patients with lung disease. We would not recommend discontinuing any treatment on the basis of Vectura’s new status, as there will be clinical risks and circumstances, unique to every patient, that need to be considered,” she stressed.

Instead, the BTS has advised that prescribers and the patients in their care discuss their views and options openly. “What we will do, in due course, is to provide our members with information that will support them in these conversations, if they take place, so they can help their patients make an informed choice about their ongoing care,” Dr Spencer noted.

PMI has now started the application to cancel Vectura’s listing on the London Stock Exchange, with plans to re-register the firm as a private limited company. In doing so, it urged remaining investors to accept its offer before October 19, 2021, “or risk becoming minority shareholders in a majority controlled private limited company,” as reported by Investment Week.

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