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Drug company chiefs accept the need for more openness

BMJ 2005; 330 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.330.7484.163 (Published 20 January 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;330:163
  1. Lynn Eaton
  1. London

    Officials from two major pharmaceutical companies—GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca—have accepted that the public needs more openness from the industry.

    Dr John Patterson, executive vice president for product strategy, licensing, and business development at AstraZeneca (UK) and Eddie Gray, senior vice president and general manager at GlaxoSmithKline Pharma (UK), were among the witnesses questioned by the House of Commons health select committee last week. They were giving evidence as part of the committee's ongoing inquiry into the influence of the pharmaceutical industry in the United Kingdom.

    “There is a feeling that expectations have shifted,” said Mr Gray. “It's like trying to catch a train that is already moving,” he admitted.

    Both accepted there had been a marked change in public attitudes to health issues, fuelled both by general media coverage of health issues and by specific coverage when a new drug was launched or if something went wrong with a drug.

    But the public did not understand what acceptable levels of risk were, argued Dr Patterson.

    “People are not well versed in many fields in talking about relative risk. When there is an issue of tolerability, to put that in the context of the number of people who are dying of that disease does not always fit well within a 20 second sound bite on television,” he said.

    The committee's chairman, David Hinchliffe, suggested that, rather than just expecting the public to understand these issues better, the industry might be able to be more transparent about its research and the way it operated. Mr Gray pointed to the recent voluntary move to make all clinical trial results available on the web (BMJ 2005;330: 109, 15 Jan).

    Although reluctant to comment on behalf of the industry as a whole, the witnesses denied that their companies had ever had research findings “ghost written” (written up by a professional writer working for the drug company)—an allegation made against the industry in previous committee hearings. However, Dr Patterson admitted that professional writers did work alongside research authors, assisting in getting a paper up to publishable standards.

    “But it isn't always easy to get negative results published,” he said, in response to questions about why drug companies sometimes seemed to “cherry pick” only the positive results from various trials.

    Another witness, Dr Stuart Dollow, vice president of the medical division of GlaxoSmithKline, fiercely denied any suggestion that the industry was inventing illnesses to sell drugs to treat the condition. “It is not something we would do,” he said.

    Asked why his company had seemed reluctant to change its advice on the potential withdrawal symptoms for people coming off paroxetine (Seroxat), Mr Dollow said that there had been several trials, using the drug at different doses and that only one small trial had shown this effect. He said the changes in the patient information leaflet showed that the industry was able to improve the quality of such leaflets.

    However, Mr Dollow seemed unaware that, before the debate in an early day motion about Seroxat, in February 2004 in the House of Commons, the company had failed to respond to a request for information from MP Paul Flynn. Mr Flynn suggested in that debate that GlaxoSmithKline had “deliberately suppressed information on the danger of Seroxat” (seewww.publications.parliament.uk).

    Reports of the health select committee hearings are available at www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/health_committee.cfm

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