Politics·Fact Check

The NDP's misleading claim about Trudeau and 'big pharma'

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh claims that Justin Trudeau is in the pocket of big drug companies. But his numbers — and timeline — are questionable.
A pharmacist counts prescription drugs at the at the CentreTown Pharmacy in Ottawa, Ontario. The federal Liberals are hoping to save billions by capping the prices that drug companies can charge consumers and governments. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The claim: "Mr. Trudeau, he promised to reduce the cost of medication by a simple change that would have set a list of different countries to compare our prices to. He abandoned that commitment and we wonder why. Well in four years, he met with the pharmaceutical lobbyists over 875 times."

-- NDP leader Jagmeet Singh throws out a big number during his campaign launch in London, Ontario, Wednesday.  

The Facts: 

During the 2015 election, the Liberals ran on a promise to reduce what governments pay for drugs by joining with the provinces and territories to buy in bulk. 

But the "simple" change that the NDP leader refers to wasn't talked about until 2017 — and it has proved to be a fairly fraught issue.

What the Trudeau government proposed then was an overhaul of the way the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board (PMPRB) sets limits on domestic drug prices. 

Since it was first established in 1987, the federal agency has compared Canadian retail prescription drug costs to those charged in seven other developed nations, including the United States and Switzerland, which have the highest prices in the world. All of which helps explain why Canada ranks fourth in per capita spending on medicine, behind those two countries and Germany.

What the Liberals proposed was to drop the U.S. and Switzerland from the comparison list and add six other countries, for a total of 11. And to change the regulations, so that drug makers will have to disclose what they actually charge their best customers for their products after discounts, not just the list or sticker price. 

Taken together, Ottawa figures the changes will end up saving consumers and governments $13.2 billion by 2030 and pave the way for the promised introduction of a national pharmacare program if the Liberals are re-elected.

Of course, this would also make a significant dent in the profits of the Canadian pharmaceutical industry. And the drug companies have made their unhappiness known through fierce lobbying and two, ongoing efforts to block the changes in the courts.

Singh says Justin Trudeau has "abandoned" his commitment on drug prices. But the government has taken some action on the issue. 

Last month, Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor unveiled the long-promised amendments to the Patented Medicines Regulations, which are now set to come into force on July 1, 2020.

The NDP also seem to be playing fast and loose with claims about drug company lobbying.

A month ago, Singh told reporters that "big pharmaceutical and insurance companies" had met with the "Trudeau Liberals" more than 700 times since 2015. Now, it's 875-plus meetings with the prime minister himself. 

NDP spokesperson Melanie Richer says that the party came up with the 875 figure by searching the names of 27 drug companies and industry associations in the federal lobbying registry, and she provided a list of the firms and the number of interactions.

But using a start date of Nov. 2, 2015 — two days before the Trudeau government was officially sworn in — and an end date of Sept. 6, 2019, the CBC can't duplicate those numbers.

And the communications reports that detail exactly who those companies spoke to, and about what, appear to suggest that the actual number of meetings with Liberal MPs, advisers and officials in the PMO was far smaller and that some of the lobbying was about entirely different matters.

As far as Trudeau goes, there is no indication that he personally met pharmaceutical companies or their representatives at anywhere near the 18-times-a-month clip that is being alleged. In fact, the data shows just 57 direct lobbying contacts with the prime minister over the past year by organizations as diverse as Google and the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, but not a single meeting with a drug company.

Singh spokeswoman Melanie  Richer declined to provide details of the NDP's methodology, but said Singh meant to say "Trudeau's liberal government," and that, if anything, the party's 875 figure underestimates the drug company lobbying.

The Verdict: False

Sources: A New Plan for a Strong Middle Class, Liberal Party of Canada; Ottawa promises to save billions with tweaks to patent drug system, CBC News; Drug pricing regulation changes paving the way for pharmacare: health minister, iPolitics; Regulations Amending the Patented Medicines Regulations, Canada Gazette; Pharmaceutical industry files second legal challenge to Trudeau government's plan to lower drug prices, Globe and Mail, Facing crackdown in Canada, drugmakers offered billions in price cuts, CBC News; Annual Public Drug Plan Expenditure Report 2017/18, Patented Medicine Prices Review Board; Lobbying Database, Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying of Canada.


Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now