Government, pharmaceutical companies deny 'intense lobbying' over Bill 39
Anti-vaccination activists claimed several MLAs and government departments were lobbied before hearings
Amid the many far-fetched and discredited claims made by anti-vaccination activists at recent legislative hearings, one assertion stands out as indisputably true.
Yes, lobbyists from several large pharmaceutical manufacturers and one industry group have officially registered to try to influence New Brunswick government policy.
But beyond that, the assertions by those opposing a tough new vaccination bill don't hold up.
The government and the companies say there's no truth to claims of "intense lobbying" this spring, nor that lobbyists "visited" a range of cabinet ministers and government departments, spurring Education Minister Dominic Cardy's vaccination bill.
Sarah Dion-Marquis of the pharmaceutical industry group Innovative Medicines Canada said lobbyists "engage" all levels of government to discuss patient access to medicines as well as regulations governing drug approvals and pricing.
But "IMC has never discussed the proposed legislation to eliminate non-medical exemptions to mandatory vaccination," she said.
No meetings held
Merck Canada spokesperson Elise Giasson said her company's lobbyists, identified by name at last month's hearings, have had no meetings with New Brunswick officials either. "There has not been any interactions with the government regarding Bill 39," she said.
Another company that was named had the same comment. "GlaxoSmithKline is not engaged in lobbying activities in New Brunswick related to Bill 39," said spokesperson Michelle Smolen.
And Health Department spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane said there have been no meetings between officials and any of the pharmaceutical lobbyists.
He said there have been a few phone conversations to discuss other issues such as what medications to include in provincial drug benefits coverage, but no discussion of the vaccination bill.
A spokesperson for Cardy said he hasn't met with pharmaceutical lobbyists either.
Anti-vaccination activists make claims of lobbying
Lobbying is a controversial practice in which in-house lobbyists working for companies, or hired consultants acting for clients, seek to influence government decision-makers. They often do this by meeting with officials or arrange meetings for their clients.
Some witnesses who opposed Bill 39 at last month's hearings claimed that lobbyists played a role in getting the government to introduce the legislation.
The bill would require vaccinations for all children attending school unless they had valid medical exemptions. Exemptions on religious, philosophical and other grounds would be eliminated.
During the hearings, Saint John anti-vaccination activist Terra-Lynn Coggan alleged the large pharmaceutical companies had persuaded ministers and MLAs to "do their bidding" and increase their profits.
Coggan read excerpts from the province's registry of lobbyists, listing the names of registered lobbyists representing three pharmaceutical makers and IMC.
The registry has been operating since 2017 and requires lobbyists to indicate which government departments they may seek to influence.
Of the pharmaceutical companies Coggan named, Merck was the most active, with 10 lobbyists registered in all, six of them indicating on their forms they might lobby the Department of Education.
The only officials they said they intended to meet, however, were from the Department of Health.
Merck said in its registration that among its objectives was to "support a favourable and knowledgeable environment to implement new or improve current immunizations programs."
GlaxoSmithKline said one of its goals was "equitable access to innovative medications."
Mistaken premise made
Coggan equated that with proof of lobbying for Cardy's bill.
"Despite the somewhat vague description of the lobbying activity, the inescapable conclusion is that vaccine manufacturers were heavily involved in lobbying for legislative amendments that will make their products mandatory," she said.
Meanwhile, a document summarizing the registrations sent to CBC News by witness Stephanie Mallet claims pharmaceutical lobbyists "visited" provincial government departments and ministers on various dates in the weeks before Bill 39 was introduced.
But the claim and the timeline are based on a mistaken premise. The dates listed in the registry refer to when those lobbyists registered. They're not the dates of meetings.
"These dates match the dates the individuals filed their registrations," said Dion-Marquis. Giasson said the same thing, and the third company identified by Coggan, Sanofi Pasteur, also had no meetings, Macfarlane said.
"Registering to engage with these departments does not mean that meetings have taken place," Dion-Marquis added. "In the vast majority of these cases, our registration with a department does not represent any advocacy activity."
Mallet said Thursday that someone else authored the document she provided and it was "actually encouraging" to find out it was wrong and there were no meetings.
Coggan said her information came from a letter provided by another activist.
Possible future meetings
The pharmaceutical companies aren't pretending that there won't be meetings in the future. But lobbying on behalf of a product doesn't mean the product is unsafe or ineffective.
At the same time, questions remain about lobbying by Bill 39 opponents themselves.
Cardy told Radio-Canada last month that Vaccine Choice Canada vice-president Ted Kuntz should have been questioned about his group's efforts to influence elected officials.
"There was no time to answer questions like, 'Did your group have meetings with MLAs before these hearings? Which MLAs did you talk to? Why? What was the subject of your discussions?'"
Cardy didn't identify which MLAs he was referring to and was outside Canada and unable to comment on Thursday.
Committee chair and justice minister Andrea Anderson-Mason and Liberal MLA Chuck Chiasson, whose motion in June sent the bill to public hearings, both said they had no meetings with the organization.
No specific meetings over bill
Coggan, a member of Vaccine Choice Canada, said she had not discussed the issue with Anderson-Mason or other PC MLAs.
She said she was among more than 500 New Brunswickers who contacted MLAs to oppose Bill 39. She was also at the legislature along with five other opponents on the day last June when MLAs sent the bill to public hearings.
Opponents of the bill dominated the three days of hearings in August, prompting several MLAs to hesitate about supporting Cardy's bill.
No one from Vaccine Choice Canada has registered as a lobbyist in the New Brunswick registry. The act requires anyone lobbying for "an association, a charitable organization, a coalition or an interest group" to register.
Kuntz did not respond to a request for comment.
- An earlier version of this story erroneously said that Terra-Lynn Coggan had discussed the issue with Andrea Anderson-Mason and other PC MLAs.Sep 16, 2019 4:17 PM AT