11/05/2014 08:57 EST | Updated 01/05/2015 05:59 EST

B.C. Government And Pharma, Too Cozy For Comfort

Make no mistake: drugs are big business, even the behind-the-counter kind.

Mitch Diamond via Getty Images

Make no mistake: drugs are big business, even the behind-the-counter kind.

Last year, the B.C. government spent $1.2 billion on PharmaCare. To put that sum in context: that's more money than the budgets of the ministries of Agriculture, Energy and Mines, Environment, International Trade, Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training, and Technology, Innovation, and Citizens' Services combined.

With stakes like that, it's no surprise that big pharma is a generous donor to the B.C. Liberal party.

Since 2005, 20 of some of the world's largest pharmaceutical firms have donated at least $468,000 to the B.C. Liberals. And that's corporate donations; it doesn't include donations from employees or lobbyists. One in-house lobbyist donated a further $15,000.

Then there are donations from groups such as the International Pharmacists Association, which gave the Liberals $14,978, and from the front line, chain pharmacies like Pharmasave that gave $13,100, Shoppers Drug Mart $27,325, and London Drugs more than $41,000.

But greasing the wheels, so to speak, is only part of what big pharma considers as its cost of doing business. The industry is no wallflower when it comes to pushing their agenda on lawmakers.

Pulling the filings at the Registrar of Lobbyists for just one of those 20 pharmaceutical firms is an eye-popping experience. In what may be the lobbying industry's equivalent to carpet bombing, the designated filer for Novartis, Geoffrey Squires, has listed more than 600 intended targets for lobbying between his eight filings since 2010. It's a miracle he has time for lunch.

And Squires is just the designated filer. Accompanying reports were filed for another 26 individuals who lobbied on behalf of Novartis during that period. And that's in-house. In its monthly "Who's Lobbying Who" bulletin for December 2011, B.C.'s Registrar of Lobbyists noted that both Hill & Knowlton and Earnscliffe Strategy Group arranged meetings between the Ministry of Health and Novartis.

While companies in B.C. don't have to report how much money they spend lobbying lawmakers, in Washington, D.C. Novartis has spent $49 million lobbying Congress since 2005.

They're hardly alone prowling the corridors of power in Victoria. The designated filer for Pfizer had more than 150 intended targets. Comparable stats would likely be found in the filings for AstraZeneca, Merck Frosst or any of the other major pharmaceutical firms.

Some of the targets are a little out there, though. One firm had Partnerships BC -- a Crown corporation focused on the delivery of infrastructure projects -- on its list.

Which raises the little matter of what information British Columbians are privy to when it comes to the tête-à-têtes between lobbyists and politicians. That famous cartoon line "Th-th-th-that's all folks!" springs to mind, because a peek at the "here's hoping" list is pretty well it.

There's no provision in the act that requires lobbyists to disclose who they met with, just who they'd like to meet with. Maybe. Possibly. If it's mutually convenient.

It's one of a host of problems with the legislation that B.C.'s registrar of lobbyists Elizabeth Denham hopes to see fixed.

What's all the chitchat about between the industry and government? It would seem that PharmaCare is top-of-mind. Intended lobbying outcomes include provincial reimbursement of medications and "discussions related to company investments in research and development initiatives."

Because big pharma's largesse doesn't stop at political parties. In 2011, Novartis handed out 23 research grants to the UBC Department of Medicine totalling $550,345. B.C. universities figure prominently as intended targets in the filings of pharmaceutical lobbyists as well.

And, of course, there are the ties that bind.

The in-house lobbyist for one firm has served on the riding association executive of one of B.C.'s most powerful cabinet ministers and is reportedly a prominent fundraiser for that minister.

Last year, the Arthritis Research Centre of Canada "welcomed" former B.C. cabinet minister Colin Hansen to its board of directors. Coincidentally, last month, B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake announced $3 million in funding for the centre.

A quick recap: corporations who have a vested interest in the pharmaceutical listing decisions of the B.C. government donate generously to the party in power; their employees accept voluntary partisan posts in that same party and lobby elected officials from that party, as well as lobbying universities that undertake related research both on their behalf and on behalf of government.

And this never struck anyone in government as potential conflicts of interest waiting to happen?