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Officials reject claims of drug industry's influence

BMJ 2004; 329 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.329.7467.641-a (Published 16 September 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;329:641
  1. Ray Moynihan
  1. London

    Questioned repeatedly about the effect of the drug industry on doctors' prescribing, medical education, scientific research, and drug evaluation, government officials told a parliamentary inquiry last week that there was no evidence of unhealthy influence.

    Four senior officials from the Department of Health and one from the Department of Trade and Industry were giving evidence at the first public hearing of the far reaching inquiry of the House of Commons Health Committee into the industry's influence on the health system.

    Committee chairman David Hinchliffe, who is soon to retire, told the BMJ that a key reason for the inquiry was the failure of the system as a whole to take public health and prevention sufficiently seriously. “What we want to look at is the way in which the curative role of industry might impact on policy development,” he said.

    The packed hearing of the committee opened last Thursday in Westminster with a question to the departmental officials asking why their written submission did not seem to acknowledge the industry's extensive influence over the system and whether they held opinions on that influence.

    The health department's Dr Felicity Harvey launched into a defence of the industry, citing its £12bn ($22bn; €18bn) in annual exports and its trade surplus of more than £3bn.

    Rather than the industry having any unhealthy influence, argued Dr Harvey, the government was successfully influencing the industry to do the right thing by patients and public health: drug company representatives were giving doctors good information, and rising numbers of prescriptions for antidepressants and drugs for heart problems were a sign that the government's health priorities were being adhered to.

    As for any alleged promotional excesses, the officials stressed that all was under control. “We do have mechanisms in place,” said Dr Harvey, the most senior official with responsibility for the government's relationship with the drug industry.


    Embedded Image

    David Hinchliffe said MPs wanted to consider whether the influence of the drug industry meant that the NHS concentrated too much on cure rather than prevention

    Credit: PA

    Jon Owen Jones (Labour MP for Cardiff Central) asked Dr Harvey directly whether she understood that there was a fundamental conflict between the industry's drive for profit and the government's responsibility for public health. She replied that the “stakeholder relationship” between government and industry “brings many gains and many innovative medicines… with huge impacts on health outcomes.”

    The approach of the government officials appeared to rankle committee members, who have received written submissions and evidence that indicate widespread drug industry influence over many aspects of the health system.

    Dr Richard Taylor (independent MP for Wyre Forest), said that he thought the officials had shown “complacency.” “The government officials gave the impression industry influence is not a problem,” said Dr Taylor. “I'm not sure that's right.”

    Dr Taylor told the BMJ, “There is a feeling among many members of parliament that the drug industry has much greater influence over the national health system than it should have. It decides where the research goes—and that's where treatment goes.”

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