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An unhealthy interest in e-cigarettes?


An organisation that receives funding from three of the biggest tobacco companies in the world is providing support for the UK Parliament’s APPG (all-party parliamentary group) on e-cigarettes.

The UKVIA (UK Vaping Industry Association) now provides the secretariat for the APPG, which aims to ‘explore the most appropriate parliamentary and regulatory response to e-cigarettes and to raise education and literacy among policy makers regarding e-cigarettes and related public policy questions’.

Formed in September, it describes itself as a ‘partnership of the leading producers, distributors and vendors of vaping products’. Its 13 members include Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco International. Another member is Fontem Ventures, a company that makes a leading brand of e-cigarettes, and is owned by Imperial Brands, the parent company of Imperial Tobacco.

The APPG recently held a discussion event called The Great Vape Debate. Panellists included a scientist from Fontem Ventures, and behavioural psychologist Christopher Russell from the Centre for Substance Use Research – an organisation also part-funded by tobacco companies.

The panel also included a smoking-cessation manager and economics academic.

The event promised to bring together ‘academics, public health NGOs, think tanks, vaping activists, stop-smoking services and local councillors, MPs and peers’.

The developments have been criticised by health experts – who have questioned whether the debate about the future role of e-cigarettes can be properly held in the circumstances.

David Hinchliffe who was chair of the Commons health select committee until retiring as an MP in 2005, told BMA News he was ‘surprised and concerned’ by the UKVIA’s involvement in the APPG.


Strong guidelines

Mr Hinchliffe, formerly Labour Party MP for Wakefield, said: ‘I’ve been retired since 2005 but while I chaired the [committee] we looked into the influence of the pharmaceutical industry and the extent to which it was involved in actively sponsoring APPGs.

‘We felt this was an area that Parliament as a whole should look at and I thought there were much stronger guidelines on the involvement of commercial organisations in Parliament as a result.

‘It needs to be addressed, in my opinion – I think it’s completely wrong for organisations to influence the work of Parliament. These groups carry a fair bit of weight – producing reports, creating debate. I don’t think we can have a reasonable debate [with outside companies involved] and they wouldn’t want to be involved unless it merited their influence.’

Last year the BMA board of science produced a paper calling for a range of measures to develop a ‘smoke-free society’ – including limiting the influence of tobacco lobbyists.

Among the recommendations the BMA suggests the tobacco industry should be excluded from public health policy making at all levels of Government and urged the introduction of a requirement for tobacco companies to report on sales data, marketing strategies and lobbying activity.

It followed a report from public health charity Action on Smoking and Health – Smoking Still Kills – that made similar recommendations.

BMA board of science member Ram Moorthy described the news as ‘a worry’ and called for action to make any commercial involvements in health debates as transparent as possible.

He said: ‘[The involvement of the tobacco industry in lobbying] is becoming more of a concern. We are starting to see the first work done on the topic but it seems to be driven by the manufacturers and the industry. The debate hasn’t really been influenced by evidence.’

The Berkshire ENT consultant added: ‘We’ve been having a debate that is quite polarised but we need to allow a proper debate which is informed and allows for people in the middle to have
their say.’

While APPGs are not branches of Government and have no official status in Parliament they can have an impact and influence on the parliamentary process.

A simple search of the Hansard website, which documents everything said in Parliament, reveals 2,840 results for ‘all party parliamentary groups’ since May 2010 – with many MPs and members of the Lords citing research and debate conducted by the groups, and even urging the Government to change legislation in light of their findings.

The APPG’s chair, Conservative MP for Rugby Mark Pawsey, last year asked the then prime minister David Cameron in Parliament whether he would ‘join me in highlighting the role that e-cigarettes can play in helping people give up tobacco for good?’.


Murky interests

UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies director John Britton also questioned the merits of involving outside interests in a serious health debate.

He said: ‘The concern is if it’s exercising influence over the debate. The questions are how influential are the groups and what are they calling for? I can see that having the APPG funded by either the vaping or the tobacco industry will invite questions but I don’t know what we can do about it.’

The secretariats of APPGs are often provided by organisations or charities with an interest in the debate – and the secretariat for the APPG on e-cigarettes was previously run by a government and media relations firm called Abzed, which says on its website that it successfully lobbied in the European Parliament against e-cigarettes being regulated as a medicine.

According to Parliament’s own guidance on APPGs, members from the Commons or Lords ‘may choose to involve individuals and organisations from outside Parliament in their administration and activities’.

The groups do have to declare any interests, however. UKVIA’s support, which it puts at being worth £18,500, and which began in October, is included in the parliamentary register of all-party groups.

Mr Pawsey said: ‘The APPG on e-cigarettes is a forum for parliamentarians to meet and discuss the developments in the vaping sector.’

Referring to the Great Vape Debate, held in October, he said: ‘Although I was not in attendance I understand that Dr Russell was a part of the panel at a recent session on the economics, regulation, and use of vaping technologies chaired by Lord Ridley.

‘I am informed that Dr Russell made a full disclosure of his organisation’s funding at the outset of his presentation.

‘Given that vaping is helping many people to quit smoking, and is considered to be 95 per cent safer than cigarettes by Public Health England, research into it is surely to be welcomed.’


Funding questions

Dr Russell’s organisation, the Centre for Substance Use Research, discloses on its website that its sources of funding include British American Tobacco, Philip Morris International and Fontem Ventures. Its director Neil McKeganey declined to give the levels of funding from individual contributors.

He said: ‘Dr Russell included a disclosure of his interests and funding in his contribution to the vape debate. Neither the Centre for Substance Use Research nor Dr Russell received any funding for contributing to the vape debate – his willingness to contribute to the debate was because he is committed to tobacco-harm reduction.’

He added: ‘He expressly noted in his presentation that the primary focus for interventions should be to assist smokers to quit as quickly as possible.

'However, for those who are unwilling, or unable, to quit, e-cigarettes do offer an alternative means of reducing almost all of the harms associated with combustible tobacco. I do not see that there was a conflict of interest in our contribution to this event.’

Mr Moorthy said he would not want organisations funded by tobacco firms to have any influence over public policy making.

‘We already see it in the USA where most of the big tobacco firms have a huge lobbying arm in Washington and they are really working all the time.

‘The worry is whether we are going to see this happen over here. We want to make sure parliamentary groups are independent and allow the evidence from all sides to be presented.’

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