But this exact scenario is now close to becoming reality after the board of Vectura – a company that makes medicines for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma – unanimously voted to accept a bid from Phillip Morris International (PMI) – the world’s biggest seller of cigarettes.
As someone who not only struggles with severe asthma but who also works to reduce the burden caused by smoking, the idea that a tobacco company might now profit off my disease appals me.
Even more terrifying is the fact that – in a pandemic where respiratory conditions make people more at risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes – a PMI ownership could damage the important work being done by Vectura. But this reality is edging ever closer, with only Vectura’s shareholders and the UK Government left to stand in its way.
Driving health inequalities
This is bigger than any one company, but it speaks to a wider issue. Tobacco remains the leading cause of preventable cancer and death in the UK and is a key driver of health inequalities, responsible for half the difference in life expectancy between the richest and poorest in England.
Growing up, I was surrounded by friends and family who started to smoke as teenagers, before they were old enough to fully comprehend the dangers of tobacco. Many of them still do to this day, having struggled to stop, a pattern that’s sadly not out of the ordinary.
And the problem remains. Concerningly, the number of 18 to 34 year-olds in England who smoke increased by 25% in the first lockdown.
PMI’s claims of wanting to become a “wellness company” and invest in respiratory treatments, all the while continuing to promote and sell cigarettes, is not what will help to prevent teenagers like the ones I grew up with from taking up smoking, or what will help people who do smoke to quit.
And their promise to stop selling cigarettes in the UK by 2030 reeks of hypocrisy given their continued drive to push these products in lower- and middle-income countries around the world.
We can’t rely on the corporate conscience of Big Tobacco. What the UK needs are bold and ambitious tobacco control strategies that can reduce the uptake of tobacco and ensure that people who smoke are motivated and effectively supported to quit.
They should include measures like quit campaigns and stop smoking services, with a particular focus on reducing the inequities in smoking prevalence, as our recent analysis estimates that smoking is responsible for nearly twice as many cancer cases in lower income groups compared to higher income groups.
But to be effective, these strategies must be adequately resourced – which requires a sustainable and sufficient source of funding. Something that hasn’t yet materialised.
Sustained funding cuts to public health budgets has compromised tobacco control over the years has threatened the UK’s ability to make smoking obsolete.
Paying for the damage
Tobacco is the only commercial product that’s lethal when used as intended, killing at least half of its users in the long-term.
Smoking also costs society an estimated £12.5 billion a year in England alone, £2.4 billion of which falls on our NHS.
When a fuel company dumps oil into the ocean, they’re rightly made to clean it up. In the same way, as the maker of such a dangerous and addictive product, I believe that the industry should be forced to pay for the damage caused by their products – without having any say in how the money is spent.
We know they can afford it – tobacco manufacturers make more money every year than Coca-Cola, Disney, Google, McDonalds and FedEx combined, with the pandemic not seeming to have affected their profits.
There’s a chance for the UK Government to make this happen, and soon. They should create a dedicated tobacco control fund in the upcoming Spending Review this autumn, something that would help pay for tobacco control measures across the UK.
Unlike the Vectura deal, that would be a decision worth celebrating.
Alizee Froguel is a policy manager specialising in prevention at Cancer Research UK.