The Stockholm NetworkBMJ 2010; 341 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c6413 (Published 10 November 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c6413
- Steven Harkins, researcher, University of Strathclyde,
- Melissa Jones, managing editor, Powerbase
Earlier this month, UK health secretary Andrew Lansley announced that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) would be stripped of its power to halt the purchase of drugs not considered cost effective for the NHS.1 He argued that the new system would be one where the “price of a drug will be determined by its assessed value”.2
The Stockholm Network, a pan-European think tank network, agreed with the proposed change to NICE’s remit. In a press release its chief executive, Helen Disney, argued that the move showed that, “even at a time of austerity, the British public does not want or accept rationed healthcare”.3
The network, which produces research for “market-oriented policy ideas in Europe”,4 has long had NICE within its sights. In 2007 it raised similar concerns, arguing that: “A decision to prioritise a less therapeutically effective medicine because of cost-based considerations over an effective, but more expensive, medicine could lead to some serious political, social and moral dilemmas”.5
With former Conservative Party research director Rick Nye among its founders6 and another ex-staffer now a Coalition government special adviser7, the Stockholm Network is well connected and regularly publishes research on topical public policy debates from health and welfare to climate change. A key aim is “to promote competition and choice in healthcare, through reform of European health systems and markets”.8 Helen Disney is a strong advocate of NHS reform, declaring that “leaving the NHS unreformed will ultimately bankrupt it”.9
Yet close links between the Stockholm Network and the pharmaceutical industry raise serious questions about its ability to produce independent policy advice.
Partially funded by big drug companies including Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, and Merck,10 11 12 it has also received funding from the Centre for the New Europe (CNE), which helped set it up in 1997 and has a strong focus on the privatisation of healthcare. Former Pfizer “policy stakeholder relations” director Catherine Windels, known as “the godmother of all think tanks” according to CNE’s founder Paul Belein,13 also helped to co-found the network 14 with Helen Disney, a former deputy director of the pro-market Social Market Foundation think tank.15
The network’s membership base has grown from just four think tanks in 1997 to over 120 partners spanning 40 countries. Initially operating from the London offices of the conservative think tank Civitas between 2001 and 2003,16 the network was then managed through the creation of a public policy PR consultancy company called Market House International17 in November 2003, renamed as The Stockholm Network in February 2006.18
In 2006, the same year that Pfizer made £8bn (€9bn, $13bn) in annual sales for its cholesterol drug Lipitor (atorvastatin), the bestselling drug in the world,19 the Stockholm Network published its report Cholesterol: The Public Policy Implications of Not Doing Enough. The report concluded there is “evidence of wide-scale under-prescribing and suboptimal dosing of effective lipid-lowering agents in Europe” and promoted “greater use of strong statins or the addition of cholesterol absorption inhibitors to statins” to avoid a health and welfare crisis in Europe.20 21
Last year two members, the Liberalni Institute and the Centre for European Reform22 23 left the network after the publication of a 2009 Stockholm Network report entitled The UK Pharmaceutical Industry: Current Challenges and Future Solutions. The report argued that “[a] lack of government investment is another factor adversely affecting the UK pharmaceutical industry.”24 Writing in the Telegraph blog Alex Singleton accused the network of “calling for government funding of the pharmaceutical industry”, although Helen Disney contended that the report had been misrepresented in the article.25
On quitting the network, the Liberalni Institute issued a statement saying that it is “strongly opposed to the promotion of particular interests of business couched under the heading of liberalism.”22
Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c6413
Competing interests: None declared.