As the FDA’s deadline to approve marketing applications nears, industry experts look back on the submission process.
By Chris Howard and Rich Hill
It’s been nearly a year since many of us filed premarket tobacco product applications (PMTAs) to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for new tobacco products, so now seems like a perfect time to reflect on what we took away from the experience. Below you will find a Top-10 list of learnings from the front line.
1. Everyone (and no one) is an expert.
From day one, we worked with dozens of consultants, researchers, similarly situated companies, regulators, outside counsel and other stakeholders. Which groups provided the most insight?
Answer: It certainly wasn’t the ones who claimed to definitively know everything about a particular facet of the PMTA. Rather, we felt most confident when working with those who acknowledged the inherent uncertainty in the process. The ability to speak candidly with these individuals enabled us to collaborate to best achieve our goals of meeting FDA expectations. We learned the least from those who “guaranteed” us security or made promises about what the FDA needs/wants.
2. The FDA is not the enemy.
Believe it or not, the agency isn’t out to get you. The Center for Tobacco Products (CTP) is not maliciously trying to ensure that all applications for new tobacco products are denied. Despite what you read from frustrated vapers on Twitter, the team at the CTP is doing what they are required to do—assessing whether new tobacco products are appropriate for the protection of public health.
Yes, it is expensive and requires a lot of work to meet this standard, but collaborating with the FDA is a much better approach to achieving this goal compared to taking an adversarial posture. If a combustible cigarette can receive a market order, then there is clearly a path for modern oral products and electronic cigarettes to do the same.
3. Money talks.
Unfortunately, not too many shortcuts are acceptable when it comes to a PMTA, so as a result, the entire process is expensive. While you can reduce your spend by seeking discounts, collaborating with others, etc., the fact remains that you will need to make a substantial investment in this work.
Throughout the process, we sought the best deals without sacrificing quality and looked for ways to reduce costs wherever we could, but we still spent a significant sum for our product applications. The greatest potential PMTA cost savings really begins with what products you intend to put through the process. Doing a full, scientifically sound PMTA for 1,000 stockkeeping units (SKUs) is not realistic. Make hard choices about your products in the beginning and pare your list down—this will generate your greatest cost savings.
4. Not all labs are created equal.
This may seem obvious, but just because a lab is certified, has a slick website and talks a good game doesn’t mean they have the scientific rigor or physical capacity to complete your project. Many labs jumped into the “PMTA testing game”—but the solid labs delivered on time and provided scientifically sound methods and results. How do you choose a solid partner?
Answer: Seek out laboratories that have a reputation working with your products. They don’t have to be the biggest, but they need to be experienced with the testing you are seeking. Audit them with external consultants. Do they have sufficient equipment and personnel to handle the throughput you need to finish on time (especially with competing client demands)? Ultimately, you get what you pay for. You can go to the cheapest labs, but there is no guarantee that you will get results on time or on target.
5. No kids allowed.
This goes without saying, but vapor products are obviously for adults only. We are all aware of the concerns regarding youth usage of vapor products, and you can be sure that the FDA places a priority on this topic. Take the time to describe the practices you employ to deter youth usage of your products.
Don’t try to guess the minimum you need to do to achieve the goal. Rather, show the FDA that you are willing to spare no expense when it comes to this issue. We drafted company marketing standards and have shared them industrywide to encourage others to adopt the same.
6. The perfect is the enemy of the good.
A premarket tobacco application for a handful of SKUs can consist of tens of thousands of pages. Given this, we can confidently say that forgetting to indent a paragraph is not going to be determinative in whether the FDA ultimately decides to grant you a market order.
Details obviously matter, but prioritize conveying your message(s) clearly by prioritizing substance over form. A misplaced semicolon isn’t going; to make the difference.
7. Tell your story.
Which story matters the most? Is it what you read this morning online about Juul and kids?
Answer: No, the FDA isn’t evaluating your application based on what others in the industry are doing. Your application is the opportunity to tell the story of why your products are appropriate for the protection of public health. Don’t be consumed by details about what is going on with other products.
8. From here to there
Finding a publishing partner that can handle your application is critical. Not all electronic publishers do large-scale projects. Many publishers want more time for loading and checking your application than you realistically can afford. Some publishers work with 20–30K pages exclusively (which doesn’t work as most PMTAs far exceed that page count).
Clearly communicate your timelines and ensure that your publisher’s project management teams can meet expectations. Because it’s the final step in the submission process, publication is naturally a bit of a scramble—which makes it prone to errors. Develop a dedicated quality control process so that you can confirm that your publisher submitted your complete application.
9. It’s not over until it’s over.
You will undoubtedly feel a sense of relief following the submission of your application, but we caution you to keep your eye on the prize. The FDA will inevitably have questions about your products in the form of a deficiency letter, so you need to stay focused on responding with the detail required.
These questions will come with deadlines, so do not wait until the last minute to prepare your response. Nothing would be worse than fumbling the ball at the goal line.
10. Uncertainty is the only certainty.
Anyone working in the vapor industry during the past five years knows exactly what I am talking about. The PMTA process is effectively in its infancy and, as such, several variables are subject to change. Is this a reason to give up on harm reduction and your individual goal of securing a market order?
Answer: No. Embrace the changes as they arrive and do your part to help the FDA develop a clear path forward for your future applications. This evolving regulatory environment provides an opportunity for you to help shape changes. Those who back away won’t have this luxury.
Chris Howard is the vice president, general counsel and chief compliance officer of E-Alternative Solutions, an independent, family-owned innovator of consumer-centric brands. Rich Hill serves as regulatory compliance director for E-Alternative Solutions.