CBC MARKETPLACE: HEALTH » DRUG
Promoting drugs through patient advocacy groups
Broadcast: November 14, 2000 | Reporter/Producer:
companies are lobbying hard to get the products they
manufacture covered by provincial health plans.
It's no secret Canada's pharmaceutical companies are lobbying
hard to get the products they manufacture covered by provincial
They spend almost a billion dollars a year,
trying to influence governments and doctors. Now, drug companies
are trying a new strategy - targeting patients. And they're
working through a network of organizations more trusted than
Among these patients' groups is the Cancer
Advocacy Coalition. The group swept into the media spotlight
in the fall of 2000 when it released a controversial study
on cancer deaths. The coalition is advocating faster approval
of costly cancer treatments. It also wants governments to
cover expensive new drugs.
What the media did not report was where the
group was getting its money from.
"Almost all our
money to date has come from pharmaceutical companies
in Canada," says Pat Kelly, co-founder of the Cancer
"Almost all of our money to date has come
from pharmaceutical companies in Canada," Pat Kelly,
one of the founders of the group told Marketplace.
The Coalition is not alone. These days almost
every high profile disease advocacy group relies on the financial
backing of the drug industry. That has some people worried
these groups may be influenced by the corporate interests
that pay their bills.
Barbara Mintzes tracks how pharmaceutical companies
promote their products. She says cozying up to advocacy groups
is the latest trend.
"They get much better credibility if a
patient group comes out and says 'this is a good product,'
rather than a manufacturer itself saying that the product
they produced and that they'll gain from selling is a good
"I think people
are not really aware of the extent to which patients
groups are funded by the pharmaceutical industry," says
Mintzes stresses that disease advocacy groups
do a lot of good work - and they're getting a lot less government
money than they used to. Her concern is pharmaceutical giants
may have a vested interested in handing over money to these
Getting the message out effectively
A recent conference in Toronto lends some credence
to that concern. People in the drug industry paid $1,500 to
hear public relations experts explain that sales rise when
drug companies develop partnerships with patient groups.
Speakers at the conference cited examples such
as the OsteoBus, which toured the country urging women to
get their bone mineral density tested. Sales for an expensive,
controversial osteoporosis drug skyrocketed.
Delegates to the conference were told that patients
and not industry types should be the spokespeople for new
best way to advertise is to make your promotion not look like advertising,"
Alan Cassels is a researcher and policy analyst
investigating pharmaceutical practices. He attended the conference.
"The best way to advertise is to make your
promotion not look like advertising - that's what one of the
presenters said," Cassels told Marketplace. "And
one of the ways you get your promotion to not look like advertising
is to use...consumer groups to speak for you."
No one in the public relations industry would
agree to do an on-camera interview for this story. But several
did tell Marketplace over the telephone that they're
busy matching drug companies with patient groups.
The OsteoBus travelled
the country urging women to have their bone mineral
density tested; sales for an expensive osteoporosis
Donor dollars aren't enough: patient groups
The Arthritis Society has received almost $2-million
dollars from pharmaceutical companies this year. Denis Morrice,
the society's president, says that money has done a lot of
"We don't stand behind any single product
or any single company," Morrice told Marketplace.
"Two million of the four million people with arthritis
take medication every single day to relieve pain. Why should
these people not have access to the best possible medication?"
Recent national newspaper supplements carrying
the Arthritis Society's logo extolled the virtues of two
new drugs. Nowhere is it mentioned that the society gets
money from the manufacturers of those products.
"We don't stand
behind any single product or any single company,"
says Denis Morrice, president of the Arthritis Society,
which has received almost $2-million from pharmaceutical
companies this year.
"The problem is, if the patient group is
funded by a company that has an interest in getting that drug
onto a provincial formulary, it's not a neutral unbiased source,"
said Barbara Mintzes.
Another recent event held by a patients
group was billed as a public information session. Two doctors
urged the audience to lobby the British Columbia government
to pay for an Alzheimer's drug. The audience never learned
the event, which was sponsored by the Alzheimer's Society,
was paid for by Pfizer, the maker of the drug the doctors
said should be paid for by the B.C. government.
A public relations firm organized the event.
Governments reluctant to cover all drugs
Governments are under intense lobbying pressure
from well-heeled advocacy organizations. Increasingly, governments
say, groups demand more coverage of expensive treatments -
some of which may have questionable benefits.
needs to happen and it needs to happen very soon is full disclosure
of where these groups get their funding," says
Wendy Armstrong, Consumer's Association of Canada.
Of 100 new drugs brought to market in Canada
every year, about five are true therapeutic breakthroughs,
according to Rick Hudson of BC's ministry of health. Paying
for every drug the government is pressured to, he says, would
take half a billion dollars from other healthcare areas.
"Do we take it from immunization programs?"
Hudson asks. "Do we take it from our equipment for new
hospitals? Do we take it from our budgets to hire nurses?"
Wendy Armstrong of the Consumer's Association
of Canada says it's becoming impossible to recognize the difference
between a legitimate group and "a drug company front."
"What needs to happen and it needs to happen
very soon," Armstrong says, "is full disclosure
of where these groups get their funding. And that should be
available, and that should be required disclosure whenever
a presentation is put on."
Others say patient groups that distribute pharmaceutical
information should be governed by the same rules as drug companies.
No publicizing a product before it's on the market and no
making exaggerated claims. Health Canada says right now, there
are no regulations governing these controversial partnerships
- and because of limited resources, that will not change soon.
Meanwhile, the Cancer Advocacy Coalition has
obtained more funding from a pharmaceutical company for
a national newspaper campaign. The coalition wants politicians
to spell out their commitment to cancer issues and drug
approvals during the federal election.
The coalition says the ad campaign has nothing
to do with the funding it has received. It simply wants
to influence public and government opinion.