Australia’s National Medicines Policy and National Strategy for Quality Use of Medicines both enshrine partnership with the pharmaceutical industry. One of the many manifestations of this is a conference next week that is being jointly sponsored by Medicines Australia (the peak industry body) and the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing.

The 2008 Second Joint Medicines Policy Conference, The Future of Medicines Policy in Australia, will be held in Canberra on November 25 and 26. There will be a major focus on health technology assessment, which includes evaluation of prescribed drugs.

One keynote speaker at the conference is Sir Michael Rawlins, Chairman of the National Institute of Health & Clinical Excellence (NICE), which is responsible for health technology assessment for the National Health Service in England and Wales. NICE was recently accused of being ‘barbaric’ because of its refusal to fund four expensive kidney cancer drugs which, according to Rawlins, could be manufactured for a tenth of the cost.

Many of the attacks on NICE are delivered by patient/consumer organisations funded by the pharmaceutical industry. This is part of a disturbing international trend for pharmaceutical companies to use so-called consumer advocates and consumer organisations to lobby covertly on their behalf.

Rawlins will be sharing the keynote speaker podium at the Australian conference with Canadian ‘consumer advocate’ Dr Durhane Wong-Rieger, (who will also be facilitating a workshop for consumer organisations jointly run by Medicines Australia and the Consumers Health Forum of Australia on Monday 24 November). Ironically, Wong-Rieger has a long history as the front-person of industry-funded attacks on Canadian government organisations similar to the tactics used in the UK against NICE.

Many Canadian consumer advocates and health professionals are critical of Wong-Rieger’s relationships with the pharmaceutical industry, including her promotion of fast-tracking of expensive poorly tested drugs and direct-to-consumer advertising. She and the organisations with which she is associated have also begun to attract criticism internationally, for example in Essential Action’s report ‘Patients, patents and the pharmaceutical industry: The pharmaceutical industry ties of the organization “Patients and Patents,” and the signers of the “Patient declaration on medical innovation and access“.

Healthy Skepticism, an Australian-based international non-profit organisation whose main aim is to improve health by reducing harm from misleading drug promotion, wrote to Mr David Learmonth, Deputy Secretary with the Department of Health and Ageing, expressing our concerns about Wong-Rieger’s presentation. His reply dismissed our concerns and claimed that Wong-Rieger’s industry connections are well known. However, we do not believe that this is the case (except increasingly in Canada), and it is certainly not reflected in her speaker profile in the conference brochure.

Learmonth’s reply also claims that Wong-Rieger is not speaking as a designated consumer advocate. However, her speaker profile emphasises her experience as a consumer advocate/representative and her role as head of Consumer Advocare Network, a Canadian national network that provides a ‘common voice for patient organisations’.

In February 2008, that organisation jointly hosted a conference in Brazil, funded by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, on access to medicines. Although patient groups were the specific target audience for this meeting, members of a Brazilian HIV/AIDS support organisation, from GTPI/REBRIP, reported that they were banned from attending.

Next week’s conference is about the future of Australian medicines policy. When an industry-funded so-called consumer advocate is a keynote speaker at such a conference, it shows how effectively pharmaceutical companies are hijacking consumer advocacy.

Peter Fray

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