Monday, 18 April 2011

BMA urges conference to distance itself from pharmaceutical interests: whistling in the wind?

A startling cautionary note has come from the World Health Organisation, urging smoking prevention activists to bite off the hand that feeds their activities. If not that, to get a respectable distance from other relevant commercial interests in the field. Delivered at a pharmaceutical-industry sponsored conference, it remains to be seen how much difference the acknowledgement of a competing interest in the field will make.

Chris Snowdon has covered this issue, with some background.

Our own resident smoking cessation medication trade-fare cum training school, the UK National Smoking Cessation Conference, similarly relies on pharmaceutical sponsorship. Looking at the list of delegates am I the only one to be amazed how much money changes hands in the effort to stop people from smoking? Most if not all these people are salaried, many of them specialising in smoking cessation or 'health improvement'. By the time the conference takes place in June there will probably be over 600 of them on the delegate list, and of course many more who won't make it.

What gives government such a kick out of employing people to stop people from smoking ... from buying a product which gives them so much money. Tell me it's conscience, and I won't buy it.

It gets harder to believe that one can view pharmaceutical corporations as primarily interested in the good of our health. They will be the main beneficiaries of the Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products Directive, which aims to outlaw the sale of herbs as medicines (due to be implemented on 30 April this year), thus removing access to herbal remedies by people all over Europe – including remedies originating outside Europe. (You can sign a petition here.*) Europe also wants to remove access to smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes, also on the grounds of their supposed risks to the public. This will leave the smoking cessation business to the pharmaceutical corporations.

What makes Europe step into line with the commercial imperatives of these hugely powerful pharmaceutical corporations? Is it credible that pharmaceutical interests will be acknowledged to be as commercially powerful as that of the tobacco interests, and therefore just as suspect?

Those who make a virtue of a level playing field when it comes to applying smoking bans don't apply a level playing field in the economic and political arenas. Pharmaceutical companies and tobacco companies are clearly rivals in the market for nicotine, but tobacco companies face a ban on advertising and sponsorship. This means that no one depends on them for income, including the media. Pharmaceutical companies on the other hand make drugs, and government needs their cooperation. Pharmaceutical companies are seen as a source of good health and high quality, prestigious employment. They tick all the right boxes.

CorporateWatch quotes The Guardian in its general overview of pharmaceuticals.
There were times not long ago that drug companies were merely the size of nations. Now, after a frenzied two-year period of pharmaceutical mega-mergers, they are behemoths, which outweigh entire continents. The combined worth of the world’s top five drug companies is twice the combined GNP of all sub-Saharan Africa and their influence on the rules of world trade is many times stronger because they can bring their wealth to bear directly on the levers of western power.
With so much influence (employing two lobbyists for every member of the US Congress), it isn't surprising that commercial interests outweigh those of public health:
The US government has shown many times how it backs up its pharmaceutical industry at the cost of ordinary people the world over, including its own citizens. In September 1999 the US government decided to grant US pharmaceutical corporations the patent rights over drugs invented with public funds – six HIV/Aids drugs, as well as anti-malarial treatments and other medicines of vital interest to developing countries. The government had the right to use the drugs in public health initiatives, but chose to protect the commercial interests of its industry instead. 
I think I won't hold my breath for smoking cessation specialists to stop depending on pharmaceutical influence.

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