Drug company accused of ‘disguised marketing’ – and why we all need to be aware of industry funding of patient advocacy groups

Last week’s blog and newsletter featured ‘a little bit of politics’. Here, I highlighted the evidence that the pharmaceutical industry can bias the results of ‘scientific’ endeavour, and I also drew attention to the conflict of interest that exists between this drug companies the medical journals that publish and help popularise their research. All of this becomes more acute when you consider the top-dollar sums the industry spends on the PR and marketing of what can be erroneous or misleading information.

This week a story emerged which highlights yet another way in which the pharmaceutical industry can influence thinking and health policy ” through the funding of initiatives that, essentially, promote use the of pharmaceutical agents. This story concerns the launch of an organisation called Cancer United, the aim of which is to harmonise access to cancer treatments across Europe.

Cancer United was launched in Brussels with high-profile fanfare. The initiative has, reputedly, the support of Alistair Campbell, as well as cancer specialists and the chair of an all party parliamentary group on cancer (Dr Ian Gibson). This all looks OK on the surface. However, it turns out that Cancer United is bankrolled by the pharmaceutical giant Roche. It turns out that Roche may now be investigated for a lack of transparency and ‘disguised marketing’.

Disguised marketing is clearly a problem, and it is closely related to another industry practice – disguised funding. Many charities and patient advocacy groups can receive monies from the pharmaceutical industry, but may not declare this. For instance, a letter in the British Medical Journal in 2003 criticises UK’s largest diabetes charity ” Diabetes UK ” for receiving substantial funds from a variety of pharmaceutical companies but not declaring this in its annual report!

I’m nervous about the funding of charities and patient advocacy groups by drug companies, and I get even more twitchy when it’s not declared. Why is this important? Well, because we know that industry involvement has the potential to influence the advice individuals get, and this may not always be to their benefit.

So, getting back to Diabetes UK, is there any evidence that this charity is not doing all it can to give diabetics the best advice. Well, one might imagine that the UK’s biggest diabetes charity would be striving to encourage healthy eating. There is now plenty of evidence, for instance, that adopting a diet containing foods of low glycaemic index (foods that basically release sugar relatively slowly into the bloodstream) can improve blood sugar levels as well as other important biochemical parameters.

Yet, looking at the Diabetes UK website, the importance of the glycaemic index is only mentioned in passing. In fact, very little of the site is devoted to dietary advice of any nature. Mind you, the charity does trot out the usual line that diabetics are given about including starchy carbs with each meal (even though most of these are disruptive for blood sugar levels). And oddly, the Diabetes UK website seems to give scant attention to the importance of exercise in diabetic management, too. Seems a bit odd, no?

Well, now consider the fact that Diabetes UK has not only been funded by the pharmaceutical industry, but is also sponsored by the makers of the artificial sweeteners Splenda (sucralose) and Canderel (aspartame).

It seems to me that Diabetes UK is an example of a organisation simply not doing as much as it could to give people relevant and practical advice about how to help themselves. If Diabetes UK dished out truly useful advice, and emphasised the importance of it, I wonder how many individuals could get by without fewer drugs or no drugs at all or perhaps would not feel the need to fill their bodies full of artificial sweeteners of dubious health benefit. But then again, if it did that, I wonder what its sponsors would make of it.

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