Tobacco giant’s cash for vapes scheme paused after backlash from Australian health experts

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: José Luis Magaña/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: José Luis Magaña/AFP/Getty Images

A controversial program that would have led to pharmacists receiving $275 from Philip Morris when they order its VEEV vapes has been paused, amid growing concern about the ethics of the tobacco giant incentivising the sale and promotion of its products.

The scheme, first reported by News Corp, would have seen pharmacists receive $5 every time they dispense a new VEEV script, $10 for educating a new patient about the device, and $5 for referring patients to a doctor to obtain a prescription. Pharmacists would also receive a $275 payment for placing an initial stock order.

Following a backlash from doctors and health experts, the IT platform responsible for rolling out the scheme, PharmaPrograms, said the launch had been paused.

Related: Call to ban vaping for young Australians after review concludes it causes ‘acute lung injury’

“Following recent advice, PharmaPrograms has taken the decision to postpone the launch whilst a review of all components of the program are being completed,” PharmaPrograms told members in an email.

“The intent of the proposed program was to support appropriate use for the approved patients, who have been prescribed nicotine vaping products by an authorised prescriber. As well as provide pharmacists with information about the unique regulatory requirements for prescribing and supplying vaping products.”

PharmaPrograms said more information about the future of the program would come soon.

A Pharmaceutical Society of Australia spokesperson said pharmacists do not receive personal incentives to sell medicines.

“Patient support programs to help people use newly prescribed medicines are rare and subject to significant compliance obligations contained in the Medicines Australia code of conduct,” they said.

“Big tobacco’s attempt at financial kickbacks shows absolute contempt for pharmacists. Contempt for their integrity. Contempt for pharmacist’s professional and ethical obligation to put the health and wellbeing of their patients first. Multinational tobacco companies have no place in health care.”

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The Medicines Australia chief executive, Elizabeth de Somer, said the organisation was a strong advocate for ethical behaviour and would not condone anything that inappropriately influenced patients.

“Prescription medicines are prohibited from being advertised directly to consumers and, in addition, our code also ensures pharmaceutical companies do not offer or provide any incentives that could inappropriately influence the prescribing of a particular product,” she said.

However, because Philip Morris is not a pharmacy company, it is not subject to the code.

“In addition to our code, any activity which involves patients to influence the prescribing and supply decisions of our healthcare professionals runs a high risk of contravening the Therapeutic Goods Act, which prohibits promotion of prescription medicines to consumers,” de Somer said.

Medicines regulator the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has not approved any vaping products for registration. All registered medicines in Australia have been evaluated by the TGA for efficacy. .

This means a doctor needs to apply to the TGA for access to the unapproved products before giving a patient a prescription for them.

Guardian Australia has contacted the TGA for comment on the VEEV scheme.

The most comprehensive review yet of vaping harms, led by researchers from the Australian National University National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, found conclusive evidence that e-cigarettes cause poisoning, injuries, burns and immediate toxicity through inhalation, including seizures. Their use also leads to addiction, the review found.

The leader of the review, Prof Emily Banks, said the tobacco industry wanted to piggyback off the trust Australians place in the healthcare system.

“Big tobacco wants a piece of that – they want some of the trust to rub off. It’s beyond appalling.”

Tobacco causes more than eight million deaths worldwide each year, more than 10% of all deaths, Banks said. Smoking is Australia’s leading cause of premature death.

Banks said big tobacco used tactics to market itself as “reformed” while recruiting new smokers through vaping, opposing tobacco regulations and marketing e-cigarettes to adolescents. Meanwhile, tobacco companies are still heavily promoting cigarettes in countries without strong tobacco control laws.

“This industry has no place in any part of the healthcare system,” Banks said.

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In a statement, Philip Morris International (PMI) defended the VEEP program, saying since 2021 nicotine vaping products had been available in Australian pharmacies as a prescription-only medicine for smoking cessation.

“Several manufacturers, including PMI, have been providing nicotine vaping products to Australian pharmacies via the stringent regulatory regime. Industry data indicates that across multiple manufacturers products are now available in over 2,000 pharmacies nationwide,” the statement said.

The president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, Dr Karen Price, said the scheme had the potential to ruin community trust in local pharmacies.

“I urge all pharmacists to resist the lure of big tobacco cash and not take part in this diabolic scheme,” Price said.

“This is nothing short of appalling. What we essentially have here is a health organisation working hand-in-hand with a tobacco giant responsible for the deaths of millions and millions of people to incentivise pharmacists into pushing a harmful vaping product.”

Price said big tobacco reaped huge profits from vaping and would try any means necessary to hook new users, “including payments to community pharmacists who are supposed to have the health and wellbeing of their customers front of mind”.