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Big Pharma Feels Heat, Stays out of Kitchen

Reuters reported last week that British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, Ltd. (GSK.L), spent a few days considering the possibility of going into e-cigarette manufacturing. Since the UK regulatory board, the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency) is gearing up to medicalise its treatment of vaping supplies and consider them therapeutic products, their deliberations were appropriate. But the answer turned out to be 'No'.

"We've decided we're not going to play,” said GSK CEO Andrew Witty. "Of course, it's definitely taken a bit of our market,” he went on, “no question at all -- but there's a lot of competition in that space anyway."

The pharmaceuticals giant sells Nicorette gum, whose customers include American President Barack Obama, and the nicotine patch NicoDerm CQ, a product category that came in second in a photofinish with e-cigs in a New Zealand study of smoking cessation effectiveness a few years ago. They also make the smoking cessation medicine Zyban, and are also exploring the possibility of a joint venture with the firm Novartis, which makes a a nicotine patch (TTS Patch), and a nicotine gum and lozenge (Nicotinell).

It is difficult to resist the speculation that their deliberations amount to “circling the wagons” or “battening down the hatches” or whatever defensive metaphor you wish to use, in view of the impending onslaught from the more popular cessation method, vaping. Combined revenues for the two patch-and-gum-makers will be $3 billion in 2015, making them the market leader in their product category. Vaping products haven't reached that figure yet, but they are gaining fast, and expected to reach that figure this year. Furthermore, their galloping growth shows no signs of slowing.

Reuters reporter Kate Kelland quotes a 2014 study to the effect that would be quitters are more likely to succeed with e-cigarettes. This is a whopping understatement, as everybody but Stanton Glantz knows. There have been quite a few such studies, and Kelland does not specify which one she has in mind. Probably the Cochrane review.

E-cigarettes are "just too controversial," said Witty about the GSK decision, adding that "there's not enough data" about risks and benefits.