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Pharmacare watchdog: 'Industry influence corrupts the public policy process'

06/18/2015 04:32 EDT | Updated 06/18/2016 05:59 EDT
Freedom of information documents have revealed the provincial government misled the public about the firing of eight Ministry of Health researchers. The researchers were dismissed in 2012 for what the ministry said was improper use of private information. To justify the firings, the government repeatedly pointed to an ongoing RCMP investigation that never took place.

A number of the fired workers have filed lawsuits against the government for wrongful dismissal and defamation. In one of the lawsuits, a fired researcher claims the government's actions were influenced by contributions from large pharmaceutical companies.

Colleen Fuller is a health policy researcher and the Chair of PharmaWatch Canada, an industry watchdog. She spoke to the Early Edition's Stephen Quinn about how pharmaceutical companies seek to influence governments and their policies.

One of the lawsuits alleges the B.C. Liberal government received significant contributions from drug companies, in some cases, from the same companies whose medications were part of the province's drug plans. Pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, Novartis and organizations that represent them have donated tens of thousands of dollars to the BC Liberal government in recent years. How does that money influence government health policy?

I think it does influence public policy in ways that are not very healthy for the public. There are other ways that the pharmaceutical industry also influences policy.

One of the things they do is lobby — they lobby everybody. There's a lot of speculation around the activities that have occurred over the last 5 years that cause people to look at the relationship between the B.C. government and some pharmaceutical government, and I think that that's totally legitimate.

These are questions that are outstanding, but that's why I think there's a mounting call for a public inquiry to answer some of these concerns that people have.

One of the drugs was Champix, was one of the drugs being researched by the fired workers. What were some of the concerns around that drug?

Some of the concerns that were cited by the Therapeutics Initiative were that the drug led to increased hostility and aggression amongst people who were using it. These concerns have persuaded other countries to pull the drug from the market at the time when the B.C. government decided to list it under PharmaCare.

The Therapeutics Initiative is an independent evidence-based drug research organization in BC. It has seen its funding cut by the B.C. Liberal government in recent years. What role has it played in drug policy in this province and what does it mean for British Columbians when it loses funding?

This is the thing I think a lot of people are concerned about. The Therapeutics Initiative is respected and known internationally for being an independent watchdog (from government and the pharmaceutical industry). It received very little funding — estimated $1 million dollars a year — but it was estimated it saved the province $140 million a year.

It was and still is a thorn in the side of the pharmaceutical industry, there's no doubt about that.
 

What kinds of regulations are currently in place to control the pharmaceutical industry's influence over government?

I think the regulations are very, very weak. Companies have to register, but that doesn't give you any idea of the relationship between the policy makers in government and the industry.

These types of relationships should be regulated. We have Pfizer reporting to the lobby registry that they're meeting with ministers to educate them about Champix. This is ridiculous, they're not educating about Champix, they're obviously lobbying.

These types of things are harmful for the public interest and in my view, they corrupt the public policy process.

This interview was condensed and edited. 

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