Pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is losing sales of its nicotine patches and gums because of the proliferation of e-cigarettes, according to the company’s chief executive. The news probably won’t come as much of a surprise to many, since e-cigarettes are pretty darn popular and have spawned an entire freaking subculture, while patches and gums pretty much suck. However, the news raises pertinent questions about the future, hinting at the massive lifesaving potential but also serving as a reminder that the brakes are soon to be slammed on the runaway train by looming regulations.
GSK Losing Sales, But Won’t Get Involved with E-Cigarettes
GSK is responsible for quit-smoking treatments like Nicorette, NicoDerm CQ and Zyban, as well as tons of other medicines, and is in the process of joining forces with Novartis (manufacturers of Nicotinell), after which they will be the market leader for stop-smoking treatments. But e-cigarettes are starting to eat into those profits, and their popularity is likely to continue to increase.
Chief executive of GSK Andrew Witty commented, “Of course, it's definitely taken a bit of our market, no question at all – but there's a lot of competition in that space anyway.”
The last part seems like he’s understating it a little. The “competition” is between some medications (like Zyban, which can sometimes cause suicidal thoughts, psychosis and hallucinations – among other side effects), patches, gums, those crappy inhalators and e-cigarettes. E-cigarettes are obviously the most smoking-like (making them considerably more appealing), they offer nicotine just like patches and gums, have very minor side effects (which tend to clear up down the line) and are probably much more effective for quitting, given that patches and gums are only effective for 5 to 8 percent of smokers.
If current trends were to continue, unburdened by financially crippling regulations, e-cigarettes would undoubtedly become the most popular method of quitting smoking, and (based on the evidence to date) would save millions of lives around the world.
GSK have the option to get in on it, but after spending a “few days” contemplating the decision, Andrew Witty explained, “We've decided we're not going to play. We've consciously had a think about it but we're not going to play.” He said that e-cigarettes are “just too controversial” and that there’s “not enough data” on their risks and benefits.
Referring to e-cigarettes as “controversial” and treating the industry as if it’s some sort of game is again a little disingenuous. If e-cigarettes had the side effects profile of Zyban, we’d never hear the end of it. The controversy is a manufactured one, and helping people stop smoking isn’t a game (plus, if it is, GSK is already playing). E-cigarettes may make it fun, but we’re talking about real people and real lives here. GSK is attempting to put themselves “above” e-cigarettes, but it won’t last for long.
Regulations on the Horizon – Will We See a Big Pharma E-Cig?
When the FDA regulations (not to mention the harsher medicinal regulations in the UK) are put into place, if the draft version is anything to go on, the vast majority of the e-cig manufacturers existing today will be crushed by the financial and administrative pressures. In fact, tobacco companies and pharmaceutical companies will be among the only ones with the manpower and financial might to weather the storm. Will GSK be so against the idea of getting involved with e-cigarettes then? Only time will tell, but the opposition may well disappear when they stand a better chance of making some serious money from vaping.
If the proposed regulations focused on establishing reasonable manufacturing standards instead of primarily proposing a lot of paperwork, the industry would continue to thrive and patch and gum sales would continue to suffer. As it stands, GSK likely knows their slight dip in earnings from NRT is only temporary – they can just bide their time and wait for politics to kill the e-cigarette.