Scientists describe problems in Philip Morris e-cigarette experiments


By Tom Lasseter, Paritosh Bansal, Thomas Wilson, Ami Miyazaki Duff Wilson and Aditya Kalra

TOKYO/NEUCHATEL, Switzerland, Dec 20 (Reuters) - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is weighing whether to approve a potentially path-breaking smoking device by Philip Morris International Inc. With a decision expected next year, former employees and contractors have described to Reuters a number of irregularities involving clinical trials that underpin the tobacco giant's application to the agency.

By heating tobacco instead of burning it, the company says the device, known as iQOS, avoids subjecting smokers to the same levels of carcinogens and other toxic substances found in a regular cigarette. The company has spent more than $3 billion developing new smoking platforms like iQOS. As part of that initiative, Philip Morris has published extensive scientific findings, based in part on clinical studies.

Reuters also found irregularities during interviews with some of the principal investigators contracted to conduct the trials for the company. One principal investigator said he knew nothing about tobacco. Philip Morris had to jettison the experiment that investigator performed after it emerged he hadn't followed a basic procedure for obtaining informed consent from participants during clinical trials.

A second investigator submitted urine samples that exceeded what a human being is capable of, according to two former company employees, and then initially refused to acknowledge there was a problem. A third said he doesn't hold such company-sponsored clinical trials in high regard, describing them as "dirty" because their purpose is more commercial than scientific.

After reviewing Reuters' findings, Philip Morris said in a statement that "all studies were conducted by suitably qualified and trained Principal Investigators." The company said it understands that "FDA inspectors have already audited some facilities" involved in the trials. Philip Morris also said it had taken steps to address "any reported irregularity in our studies."

"Our policies encourage speaking up about suspected violations of law or our policies and we do not tolerate retaliation against those who speak up," the company said.

In addition to former Philip Morris employees involved with the iQOS program, Reuters interviewed six of the 11 principal investigators who were responsible for five of eight clinical trials the company submitted to the FDA. Reuters also reviewed hundreds of pages of publicly available Philip Morris study reports and FDA filings.

That reporting identified shortcomings in the training and professionalism of some of the lead investigators, as well as their knowledge of the study results.

A group of tobacco research and policy experts reviewed detailed summaries of Reuters' reporting and Philip Morris' response. The experts, including a former head of the FDA and two former scientific advisers for the agency, said those findings raise concerns about Philip Morris' clinical trial program.

"Taken as a whole, it's clear they do not have the sophistication to carry out adequate and well-controlled clinical trials," said David Kessler, the FDA's commissioner from 1990 to 1997, referring to the company. "I am not inferring any malicious intent here, just that they lack sophistication, because this is not their bread and butter."

If the FDA has already audited some of the trial sites used by Philip Morris, the agency "should carefully review its audits and possibly expand them," said Kessler, a former dean of the medical school at Yale University.


Tom Eissenberg, who served on the FDA's tobacco products scientific advisory committee until earlier this year, said: "The FDA should audit."

Reuters did not find any evidence that the outcome of the experiments presented by the company to the FDA was manipulated or falsified.

The new insights into the company's clinical trial program for iQOS come at a crucial time for Philip Morris. The world's largest publicly traded tobacco company by market value and maker of Marlboro cigarettes has applied to the U.S. FDA to be able to sell iQOS in America, and also for permission to market it as a modified-risk tobacco product. That designation could mean that Philip Morris is allowed to market iQOS as presenting less harm or risk of disease to users than traditional tobacco.

For now, the FDA is evaluating the company's studies. Reuters outlined its findings about the iQOS trials to the agency. The FDA said it cannot comment on a pending application.

Philip Morris says the device, which heats small tobacco inserts, is meant for smokers who would not otherwise quit. Its chief executive officer, Andre Calantzopoulos, has told investors and media alike that he intends to one day replace cigarettes with products like iQOS. So far, iQOS makes up a fraction of the company's $75 billion revenues and Philip Morris continues to market conventional cigarettes across the globe.

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