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Did the Tobacco Companies Prevent Cessation Aids?

Product Defect

Luckily, for addicted smokers, there are multiple stop smoking aids available in 2015.  Whether it by prescription or over-the-counter, and whether nicotine replacement therapy or non-nicotine medications, there are a growing number of cessation aides available today.  Some people even believe that e-cigarettes are a smoking cessation aid.  Sadly though, while there are a growing number of these cessation aids today, this has not always been the case.  And if Philip Morris had its way back in the early 1980s, one of the first cessation aids available to assist addicted smokers in quitting – Nicorette Gum – might never have come onto the market place.

As most folks know, nicotine gum is exactly what it sounds like – gum that delivers nicotine.  This method of cessation aide is called nicotine replacement therapy (or NRT), which supplies low doses of nicotine (but not the carcinogens in cigarettes) to help addicted smokers cope with withdrawal symptoms from stopping smoking.  It was formally approved by the FDA in January of 1984, and introduced to the US market-place by Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals after that in the mid-1980s.

Philip Morris was a client of Merrell Dow’s because Dow provided humectants to Philip Morris.  Humectants are substances used to keep things moist, and are added to cigarettes during the manufacturing process to control and maintain the moisture content of cut tobacco, to add flavor, and, important to milder inhalation of cigarettes.

Cigarette with ash and smoke isolated over the white background

As with most products that seek FDA approval, there is a pre-approval or review period of the product by the FDA.  This period was in the early 1980s, which according to previously secret internal Philip Morris documents is when PM learned that Dow was involved in the production of this stop smoking product.

In July 1982, PM and Dow representatives had a meeting so that “Merrell Dow could present their position on the smoking and health issue.”  At this meeting, there was a discussion about the aim of Nicorette gum, and whether it should be marketed to the general public.  It also appears that the press was investigating stories that PM was pressuring Dow to drop Nicorette.

This pressure seemed to work, as in October 1984 – which was shortly before the product hit the market place, there was another closed door meeting between PM and Dow.  At this meeting, the President and General Manager of Dow assured PM executives he had been carefully screening advertising and promotional materials to eliminate any inflammatory anti-industry statements.  It was also set up that Dow would send new ads to PM for a preview before these ads went public.  The letter also stresses that PM reiterated to Dow that PM desired to maintain its relationship with Dow.

These sub-textual “threats” continue to be alluded to in subsequent letters to Dow and PM internal memos.  In December 1984, PM wrote to Dow it was alarmed to learn that Dow was supporting the National Interagency Council on Smoking and Health, and demanded to hear from Dow, especially given the “reassurances” offered at the October meeting.

A September 1985 PM internal memo confesses that since becoming aware of Dow’s involvement with Nicorette in 1982, PM has conducted on ongoing dialogue with Dow attempting to “eliminate, or at least tone down,” the Nicorette marketing and promotional activities.  Although they continue to be frustrated by Dow’s advertising of Nicorette, PM has kept Dow as a supplier, in part because, as a customer PM can have better influence on Nicorette promotions than as a non-customer (translation: we lose any leverage to threaten Dow if we stop using them).

Another internal memo of the same day PM has “made some progress,” (in influencing Nicorette marketing).

Ultimately, Nicorette gum was introduced to the market place, becoming one of the first smoking cessation aides.  And for a while, it was one of the only stop smoking aides on the market (the patch was introduced in around 1992).  But what we will never know is, how Philip Morris’s “progress” in influencing Nicorette marketing affected (1) Nicorette’s availability to the public , and (2) the message that Nicorette can help addicted smoker’s stop smoking.  Or said another way, because of this “influence,” how many people did not try Nicorette gum.

What we do know is this:  not until 1998 did the industry publicly acknowledge for the first time what it had known internally for decades – that cigarettes are extremely addictive and hard to quit.  And it wasn’t until the compelled release of their previously secret internal documents around the same time that allowed public health authorities and researchers to start to fully understand all the reasons cigarettes are so hard to quit.

Since that time only – about fifteen (15) short years ago – there has been a virtual explosion into the marketplace of new stop smoking products.  And while this is great news for addicted smokers presently, it begs the question: by its actions, for how many years was Big Tobacco able to stand in the way of, or act as a roadblock to, the development and mass commercialization of newer, better and more cutting-edge stop-smoking aids?

Given the advances over the last 15 years , it is not difficult to imagine an answer to that question: these products could have been commercially available for people who wanted to quit and needed help in quitting smoking going back many, many years.



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