Revelations this week that Western Australia health department officials recently accepted $750,000 worth of gifts from sources including drug and device makers are simply unbelievable. In fact I didn’t fully believe them myself until I read the documents released in Perth this week on the “see what they got” tab.

As you’ll read, global drug companies that sell medicines to the Department of Health are regularly flying officials to conferences in the most desirable destinations on the planet, business class.  But what’s even harder to believe is that the government appears to be defending this extraordinary duchessing and the corrupting conflicts of interest that result.

While some poor schmucks only received a single bottle of Moet or Veuve Clicquot, others in the department were being flown in luxury to Milan, London and Stockholm.

Roche kindly paid for business-class fares and accommodation for health department officials to visit Montreal, Novartis sent folk to Lisbon, and Pfizer funded a trip to Paris.  Merck generously sponsored return business-class fares and six nights accommodation in New Orleans, at a cost of more than $15000.

Perth-based health economist Gavin Mooney reportedly described this as a “culture of bribery that needs to be stopped” and consumer groups are horrified.

The world has known for a long time drug companies wine-and-dine doctors, but this revelation that health officials are on the drip too, it truly frightening.

The government and senior officials have reacted to the public outcry saying they will ban gifts such as booze, but the junkets will be allowed to continue, arguing internal checks and balances prevent undue influence.

The argument is either naïve or disingenuous. There’s a mountain of scientific evidence suggesting doctors who expose themselves to these sorts of marketing activities are influenced. Companies sponsor conferences, travel and accommodation because it buys them access and goodwill, helping generate positive attitudes to their latest and most expensive medicines.

Sometimes those medicines are genuinely wonder drugs — AIDS drugs for example — but on other occasions they have minimal benefits but carry hidden dangers.  Allowing companies to duchess department officials fundamentally distorts their duty to the public they serve.

If there is a legitimate need to visit a conference in Milan or Stockholm, then taxpayers can surely fund it. Often, however, what look like prestigious medical meetings are little more than marketing events, sponsored by the same companies funding the travel of participants.

If the WA government wants to remove the smell and restore public trust, all of those gifts, including the sponsored travel and accommodation, should be paid back, with new rules preventing such absurd conflicts of interest in the future.

The Health Department’s South Metropolitan Area Health Service seem to be the most frequent flyers.

Meanwhile, the idea of a national, state-by-state audit of these departmental junkets is ripe, and may be extremely fruitful.

*Ray Moynihan is a medical writer.