Public health researchers are warning that the tobacco industry's attempt to market electronic cigarettes as a way to prevent cancer or reduce disease should be viewed warily, and as part of the industry's long history of trying to make its products appear safe despite contrary evidence.
According to a report this week by Reuters, the tobacco company Philip Morris International Inc. (PMI) has hired more than 400 scientists and regulatory affairs experts at its Swiss research center and spent more than $2 billion on making e-cigarettes safer and proving to the Food and Drug Administration that they reduce risk of disease, while the Altria Group — the parent company of Philip Morris USA and US Smokeless Tobacco Company — has recruited "dozens" of scientists and healthcare specialists.
"If you have a product that prevents cancer in the first place you can have a much bigger impact on public health," a biostatistician named Gizelle Baker told Reuters about her work at PMI, where she landed after working at a pharmaceutical company that developed cancer treatments.
'Tobacco companies have a long history of introducing supposedly safer products that didn't turn out to be safer at all.'
On its website, PMI referred to its "team of more than 300 scientists and engineers" at work on researching reduced-risk products that "are in various stages of development, and we are conducting extensive and rigorous scientific studies to determine whether we can support claims for such products of reduced exposure to harmful and potentially harmful constituents in smoke, and ultimately claims of reduced disease risk, when compared to smoking combustible cigarettes."
The company's statement says that claims that a particular products are less harmful than smoking should be supported by legitimate science.
"Before making any such claims, we will rigorously evaluate the full set of data from the relevant scientific studies to determine whether they substantiate reduced exposure or risk," it said.
Anti-smoking advocates and public health researchers told VICE News they are skeptical of the claims that the companies are working toward preventing or curing diseases — or that the use of e-cigarettes helps tobacco users quit.
"There's a history in the tobacco industry of hiring scientists to generate science," said Desmond Jenson, a staff attorney with the Tobacco Control Legal Consortium at the William Mitchell College of Law's Public Health Law Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. "They have journals that look legitimate where they publish information that they have financial backing for. They have scientists who publish information on addiction, smoking, biomarkers, exposure, all sorts of things, but not in typical peer-reviewed journals like Nature or the American Journal of Public Health."
The companies have also hired former FDA workers who can advise them on regulations, a move that Jensen said is typical for most regulated industries.
"By bringing in a bunch of people who used to work at FDA, they're doing the same thing pharma does: getting people from inside who know how the place actually works and how to play the game," Stanton Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco, told VICE News.
'Any positive effect you get gets completely swamped by the fact that you keep people smoking.'
Glantz, Jenson, and others attributed the company's new focus on research to its bottom line: e-cigarettes are a booming new market for the industry, and its need strong research to back up claims that can help sell them.
"Based upon my understanding of the situation, the tobacco industry views the current situation as a growth opportunity, and the movement into new products are a way of expanding the market," Terry Pechacek, professor of health management policy at Georgia State University, told VICE News. Pechacek said that tobacco companies realized in the 1950s that they likely could not make their products safe for the consumer by tinkering with the product.
"If you can't make the product reasonably safe, which they discovered in the 50s was going to be very, very hard, then the lawyers want them to deny that it's dangerous and create confusion," Pechacek said. "So we have had an almost 50 year period of a lawyer-led PR strategy of creating confusion and keeping the public from knowing they are doing something harmful."
Pechacek's research has focused on nicotine's danger to the developing brain for young people well into their twenties, and warns that the new e-cigarettes and other products can still cause that damage if young people begin experimenting with them. The industry has a history of hiring scientists and consultants to convince the public of the safety of smoking — an effort that Pechacek calls "buying credibility."
Philip Morris directed VICE News to discussions of its research and development that it has posted online, and declined to comment on criticism of its scientific and regulatory initiative.
The increase in hiring of medical researchers comes ahead of an FDA announcement of how it will regulate the new reduced-risk devices, including e-cigarettes. The agency said that it would make its announcement as early as June or as late as the fall, and companies will then be able to submit applications for their products to be regarded as a reduced-risk product. The research of PMI and Altria's scientists and regulatory experts will likely play a prominent role in those applications, Jensen said.
Glantz said that he was very concerned that the FDA "is going to actually breathe new life into the tobacco industry."
Because a dose from an e-cigarette delivers less nicotine than a combustible cigarette, he said, the FDA may go easy on it. But Glantz noted that research has indicated that many e-cigarette users continue to smoke regular cigarettes in addition to e-cigarettes, and that the use of e-cigarettes has actually diminished rates of quitting tobacco by about a third.
"So any positive effect you get gets completely swamped by the fact that you keep people smoking," he explained. The tobacco companies want dual use of both types of cigarettes because the traditional kind are so much more profitable than the electronic kind. "If you look at the stuff that the tobacco companies are telling their shareholders… it's all about what's called dual use. So it's cigarettes some of the time and e-cigarettes some of the time, and that's what the industry is looking to promote."
The FDA is nevertheless legally mandated to weigh the public health costs of any new product before announcing regulations that govern it, and might take into account the possibility that young people begin experimenting with e-cigarettes where they may not have smoked at all before.
"The FDA has a very, very difficult task, but their mandate in the law is to act in ways that protect public health," Jenson said. "Anything they do should be done in a way that minimizes kids or anyone who's not a tobacco user from beginning."
The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids told VICE News that the industry's tactics are dubious.
"Tobacco companies have a long history of introducing supposedly safer products that didn't turn out to be safer at all," spokesman Vince Willmore said. "Given that history, we have to regard with suspicion any claims by tobacco companies about safer products. Their goal is to keep people smoking."
Though the advocates seemed wary of the near future of e-cigarette use, Pechacek remains optimistic that the industry is still on its way out. He expects that its demise will be quickened by public policy aimed at dissuading potential smokers and helping active ones to quit.
"Certainly there's an end in sight," Pechacek remarked. "Full enforcement of the FDA provisions combined with aggressive reenergizing of public health strategies we know work — including price, hard-hitting media, smoke-free policies, and fully-funded [cessation] programs — could end the epidemic."
Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen