The Guardian June 13, 2001


More links to drug companies

by Peter Mac

The Federal Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee (PBAC), which 
advises the Federal government on which drugs should be subsidised 
by the government for the benefit of consumers, is again under the spot 
light. Last year the serious work of the Committee was seriously disrupted 
when the Howard Government forced through a radical restructuring of its 
membership. This involved the effective sacking of 10 out of 12 of its 
members, and the installation of new members, at least one of whom had 
strong connections to the pharmaceutical industry, for which he had acted 
as a lobbyist for many years.

The new controversy concerns committee members with financial interests in 
Pharmaceutical companies. The issue recently caused a split in the ranks of 
the newly-formed committee, which was equally divided as to whether members 
should be allowed to continue as shareholders.

The committee recommended that the Chairman should seek the advice of the 
Minister for Health Dr Wooldrige. However, the Minister's own role has been 
marred by controversy over a number of "conflict of interest" issues, 
including the PBAC restructuring and the possible benefit to a large number 
of radiologists in the purchase of new diagnostic machines prior to the 
introduction of new government regulations.

In the event, the new Chairman of the PBAC, Professor Lloyd Samson, decided 
not to seek the Minister's advice, and simply made a unilateral ruling that 
members of the committee must divest themselves of any direct shareholdings 
in drug companies. The ruling is still subject to endorsement by the 
committee as a whole, and the issue is scheduled to be discussed at a 
committee meeting this week.

Faced with the Chairman's clear ruling, the Minister expressed some 
misgivings about members owning drug company shares. He did not, however, 
rule it out as a matter of principle, commenting somewhat equivocally that 
he thought it would be "unwise" to hold such shares, "even if one did 
disclose it".

The ruling was effectively endorsed recently by another drug advisory body, 
the Australian Drug Evaluation Committee (ADEC), which assesses the 
suitability of drugs to be available for treatment of the general public. 
The ADEC Chairman stated last week that "For Government committees like the 
ADEC, financial interests like shares should exclude people from serving".

However, the rules of neither the ADEC nor the PBAC exclude members from 
enjoying some personal benefits from drug companies, such as payment for 
travel, research or consultancies, and such payments do not have to be 
declared.

The decisions of these committees have important ramifications, not only 
for the health of people, but for the profitability of drugs being promoted 
by the big pharmaceutical companies.

These corporations, amongst the most profitable in the world, exert 
considerable pressure on governments and bodies such as the PBAC. It is 
imperative that such decision-making bodies are completely independent of 
the pharmaceutical industry.

This is becoming more difficult because of the power of these corporations 
and the growing links between the public and private sectors.

These days, research projects are frequently funded on a joint basis by 
governments, medical personnel and/or drug companies, with the potential to 
ensnare medical practitioners and researchers in ethical dilemmas.

A research project headed by a former member of the PBAC, Dr David Henry 
(one of those who most vigorously fought Dr Wooldridge's restructuring of 
the committee) was recently revealed to have received part of its funding 
from a drug company.

It seems clear, however, that Dr Henry did not benefit in any direct 
personal way from this arrangement, nor was the outcome of his research in 
any way influenced by it. On the other hand it is by no means clear that 
the same can said for all the new members of the PBAC, at least one of whom 
has indicated that he will be considering his position on the Committee if 
it adopts the Chairman's ruling on shareholdings.

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