Will New Lung Cancer Drug FDA Approval Encourage More Smoking?

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The news around tobacco and smoking cigarettes has been dominated by the trends around the e-cigarette market in 2013, but perhaps something else is afoot here. Cigarette case volumes have been in decline for years now, and tobacco companies have managed earnings growth and dividend growth by raising prices. With Altria Group Inc. (NYSE: MO) and Reynolds American Inc. (NYSE: RAI) seeing their stocks at new highs, perhaps new FDA drug approvals for lung cancer treatments are driving some of the continued enthusiasm for tobacco stock investors.

What smokers and investors need to consider first is that the drugs approved on the market are not cures for lung cancer. They are treatments for lung cancer that have increased the life and longevity of those suffering from non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). The FDA has now approved Gilotrif (afatinib) for patients with late stage (metastatic) non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) from Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals.

The FDA said that it reviewed Gilotrif under its priority review program, which provides an expedited review for drugs that may provide safe and effective therapy when no satisfactory alternative therapy exists, or offer significant improvement compared to marketed products.

Gilotrif was approved concurrently with the therascreen EGFR RGQ PCR Kit, made by Qiagen NV (NASDAQ: QGEN), a companion diagnostic that helps determine if a patient’s lung cancer cells express the EGFR mutations. This is listed as the FDA’s second drug approved this year for patients with untreated metastatic NSCLC after Tarceva (erlotinib) for first-line treatment of patients with NSCLC was approved in May.

Smoking is certainly not the only cause of lung cancers, but smoking is listed as the leading cause of lung cancer by far at the American Cancer Society. 24/7 Wall St. recently pondered whether e-cigarettes would save tobacco and smoking trends. What we have noticed is that after adjustments, both Altria Group Inc. (NYSE: MO) and Reynolds American Inc. (NYSE: RAI) are still very close to all-time highs.

The FDA press release said:

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death among men and women. According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 228,190 Americans will be diagnosed with lung cancer, and 159,480 will die from the disease this year. About 85 percent of lung cancers are NSCLC, making it the most common type of lung cancer. EGFR gene mutations are present in about 10 percent of NSCLC, with the majority of these gene mutations expressing EGFR exon 19 deletions or exon 21 L858R substitution.

It is going to be hard to draw the line that a lung cancer drug approval that merely assists in living longer is going to drive up smoking rates again or is going to woo back ex-smokers. But one thing does need to be considered, and imagine if there is ever a cure for lung cancer. If that happens the public may think that they have been given permission to openly smoke again. Besides that, smokers are assured health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act now.

Smokers will still have to weigh diseases such as oral, esophageal, stomach and other cancers, but one issue at a time might be enough.

Altria Group Inc. (NYSE: MO) is up at $36.86, against a 52-week range of $30.01 to $37.61, and it has a dividend yield of 4.9%. Reynolds American Inc. (NYSE: RAI) is up around $51.59, versus a 52-week range of $39.70 to $51.76, and it has a yield of 5.0%.