Things are going from bad to worse for Australian Medical
Association president Mukesh Haikerwal. Two weeks after telling Crikey that he
believed his profession’s relationship with drug companies was ethically squeaky clean, Dr Haikerwal last night admitted to The
Age
that allegations of doctors being too cosy with Big Pharma were endangering
the medical profession’s reputation.

The good doctor’s sudden change in attitude might have been helped along by revelations from a new Age
investigation, published in the paper today,
that the mental health agenda in Australia has been heavily influenced by some
of the world’s biggest drug companies.

The Age reports
that Australia’s
peak mental illness advocacy group, the Mental Health Council of Australia, signed
a deal in October 2004 that financially tied it to some of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical
companies, including Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Glaxo SmithKline, Bristol Myers Squibb,
Lundbeck, Wyeth and AstraZeneca.

This previously unreported “Pharma Collaboration” has
been a good deal for the non-profit council, says the paper, providing 8% of
its total income and, according to Mental Health Council of Australia chief John
Mendoza, allowing it to supplement its resources and be a more
effective advocate.

And it’s not a bad deal for the drug companies either, providing them
with a unique opportunity to spruik their medications for mental
illness, especially the “new
epidemic” of depression, to Australian GPs.

Federal Health Department data included in the report shows
that 20.4 million prescriptions – nearly one for every Australian – were
written in 2003, 2004 and 2005 for the newer type of antidepressant known as
SSRIs, such as Efexor, Zoloft and anti-psychotic Zyprexa.

According to Melissa Raven, lecturer in public health at Flinders
University, non-profit advocacy groups are used by drug
companies to lobby governments to approve and subsidise specific
drugs, as well as raise the prevalence, severity and need for
treatment of certain disorders.

“Disease awareness campaigns are a form of de facto
direct-to-consumer advertising,” Raven told The Age – an especially useful tool for drug companies in countries like Australia, where such advertising is prohibited.

Peter Fray

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