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More Dirty Linen For Big Tobacco

A medical journal report claims drug companies toned down marketing campaigns for smoking-cessation products like nicotine-based gum and a skin patch in the 1980s and 1990s because of financial pressure from the tobacco industry.

The report is based on documents posted on a tobacco industry Web site offering public access to materials involved in the 1998 national tobacco settlement. That case ended states' lawsuits filed over smoking-related health costs.

"Millions of people who were desperately trying to break the most deadly of all drug addictions apparently were thwarted by the very industry which first addicted them, and as a result, millions are dead or disabled," says John Banzhaf of Action on Smoking and Health, an anti-smoking legal activist, reacting to the report. "Drug companies might soon join tobacco companies as defendants in lawsuits brought on behalf of the dead or dying."

The documents provide an inside view of tobacco industry efforts to influence drug company campaigns involving two nicotine-based products designed to help people stop smoking: gum and the skin patch.

In Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association, Lisa Bero and Bhavna Shamasunder, health policy researchers at the University of California at San Francisco, say their report highlights ethical concerns about tobacco companies' historical ties to drug companies.

In one instance, a Dow Chemical pharmaceutical subsidiary that made Nicorette chewing gum scaled back educational materials encouraging doctors to urge their patients to quit.

This happened in the early 1980s, after executives at Philip Morris, a major purchaser of Dow's tobacco crop chemicals, objected to the materials' anti-smoking tone, according to the report.

In 1984, Philip Morris suspended purchases from Dow, the report says, citing a Philip Morris memo from May of that year.

"Dow was informed that the recent spate of activity can only be interpreted as a conscious corporate decision that Nicorette is more important than the Philip Morris (and other tobacco) business. That is, they cannot realistically expect a customer to spend millions of dollars for materials, when the profits from those sales ... are used to attack that customer's product," the memo says.

Another Philip Morris memo details how it resumed purchases after Dow changed its practices.

Dow Chemical eventually sold its pharmaceutical division and Nicorette is now made by GlaxoSmithKline. GlaxoSmithKline spokeswoman Malesia Dunn said the company has not been pressured by tobacco companies.

Dow Chemical said the JAMA report reflects company management in the 1980s and that despite the alleged pressure, Nicorette sales thrived.

Since Dow provides thousands of products, "there are occasions when diverse interests require that we effectively manage our customer relationships within ethical bounds," Dow said in a statement.

The report also cited tactics involving the nicotine patch Habitrol sold by Ciba-Geigy, which also made tobacco pesticides. The company introduced Habitrol in 1991 in a campaign titled "Smokebusters."

After Philip Morris complained that the campaign "bordered on being anti-tobacco," Ciba-Geigy eliminated the title and agreed that the campaign would not have an anti-smoking theme, memos from both companies show.

Ciba-Geigy became Novartis in a 1996 merger and Novartis spun off its agribusiness division two years ago. In a letter to JAMA's editor, company President Terry Barnett said Novartis "has acted consistently in placing patient health first."

Philip Morris USA spokesman Brendan McCormick said the documents cited are old and "speak for themselves." He said the documents do not reflect the company's current beliefs that cigarette smoking "causes serious health effects in smokers and is addictive."

He said Philip Morris does not try to influence drug companies that sell anti-smoking products and agrees that to reduce health risks from smoking "the best thing to do is to quit."

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