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Timothy P. Carney: Big Pharma rumbles with Big Tobacco

Federal officials are planning new regulations on tobacco products, including those marketed as alternatives to smoking — such as dissolvable tobacco tablets sold by Camel. But some of the men and women on the government’s official advisory panel have financial ties to the drug companies selling competing products, such as Nicorette. One government adviser even holds a patent for a new nicotine gum.

It’s a full-fledged regulatory rumble between Big Tobacco and the even bigger Big Pharma — the sort of ugly influence game that will become the norm as government sticks its arms deeper into the economy.

Some quick background: Philip Morris, which controls about half of the U.S. cigarette market is doubling down on smokeless tobacco products, such as chew and snuff. It has lobbied tirelessly over a decade for the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which gives the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco. President Obama signed the bill last June, misleadingly trumpeting it as a triumph over the lobbying efforts of Big Tobacco.

The law creates a Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee that gives the FDA guidance in implementing the new regulations. Now Philip Morris — the godfather of this law — is raising a fuss over the conflicts of interest littering the committee.

For instance, Jack Henningfield is one of nine voting members on the TPSAC, and he is also one of eight patent holders of a cutting-edge nicotine chewing gum that has not yet been commercialized.

Henningfield is also vice president of health policy at a consulting firm that counts drug maker GlaxoSmithKline as a client. Glaxo holds the license for Nicorette, the leading nicotine gum currently on the market.

Multiple conflicts present themselves here:

As regulations on cigarettes become more restrictive, they become harder to get. This makes them more expensive, increasing market demand for a product like Henningfield’s.

But cigarettes are not the real battleground here — cigarette alternatives are.

TPSAC is looking into the safety of dissolvable tobacco products, such as R.J. Reynolds’ Camel Orbs, small tablets that melt in the mouth — a quick fix for a smoking addict stuck on a plane or in a meeting. One TPSAC member, Gregory Connolly, has attacked them for being too candylike, thus appealing to kids.

But is nicotine gum like candy? How about the brand new mint-flavored Nicorette Mini lozenges?

Camel Orbs may or may not be a real health risk, but they are certainly competition to Nicorette’s gums and lozenges — and Henningfield’s patented gum. Yet our government will count on Henningfield and others in the pay of Nicorette’s maker for counsel on how to regulate

Neal Benowitz, another committee member, has also worked as a consultant to Glaxo as well as Pfizer, the Wall Street Journal has reported. Pfizer makes the quit-smoking drug Chantix.

Boston University professor Michael Siegel has reported on his blog that the committee’s chairman, Dr. Jonathan Samet, “has received grant support from GlaxoSmithKline. In addition, the organization that he directed — the Institute for Global Tobacco Control — is funded by GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer.”

Finally, committee member Dorothy Hatsukami has been paid by a small drug maker to study its proposed nicotine vaccine.

A tobacco industry consultant brought my attention to the drug maker conflicts on TPSAC, knowing that I have been calling out Big Tobacco since 2006 for its use of Big Government to kill competition and lock in market share. Now the tobacco companies worry that Big Pharma — the nation’s biggest industry in terms of lobbying spending, and a crucial ally of the Obama administration — will use its government clout to unfairly crush tobacco products in favor of Pharma-made nicotine products.

It’s an ugly game, this use of regulation to kill competitors and guarantee business, and conflicts of interest are unavoidable. The Pharma-vs-Big Tobacco scrum shows that Obama’s project of increasing government control is at odds with his talk of cleaning up government.

By Timothy P. Carney, Washingtonexaminer

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