It’s well known that drug companies want YOU. Like Uncle Sam they are engaged in an active process of recruitment.

It’s well known that drug companies want YOU. Like Uncle Sam they are engaged in an active process of recruitment.

If there’s one thing journalists love, it’s leaked documents. So what a nice start to the blog that this week I’ve got us a big pile of hot-off-the-lobbyist documents.

It’s well known that drug companies want YOU. Like Uncle Sam they are engaged in an active process of recruitment, and lots of people are worried about it.

In America the process is more obvious - it and New Zealand are the only countries in the world which allow direct-to-consumer marketing of pharmaceutical products.

But a lot of the marketing goes on behind closed doors, with doctors wined-and-dined while drug companies tout their products. Sometimes they are pushing drugs that have been approved, sometimes they are touting “off-label” treatments: avoiding the costly and timely process of getting drugs approved through official means.

While it is not illegal for doctors to prescribe drugs that haven’t been approved for the purpose they are giving them to you, drug companies aren’t allowed to promote that use. 

Off-label prescribing is very common, and can help patients access much needed, evidence-based drugs.

But the approvals process saves lives, and helps stop drug companies pushing drugs that are not backed up by evidence.

Now some leaded documents from a wealthy think tank based in Chicago and Washington, the Heartland Institute, have revealed a startling new campaign.

Last week Fairfax reporter Ben Cubby revealed the Institute was funding an array of activities designed to spread doubt about climate change science. The only thing was, they were being funded by companies that had a financial interest in continuing to dump greenhouse gases into the environment.

Trawling through the vast dump of “sceptic-gate” documents, Ben noticed a funny thing; a fair few drug companies were contributing to the coffers of the Institute, which it turns out also runs healthcare campaigns. 

He sent the documents on to me, and what I saw shocked me.

The Heartland Institute this year expects to receive nearly $200,000 USD from pharmaceutical companies, with the bulk of that coming from Pfizer.

At the same time they are also launching full-gear into their new campaign: Free To Choose Medicine.

This campaign aims to strip the Food and Drug Administration of its powers to demand extensive evidence drugs work, and are safe, before they are sold to patients.

The FDA has those powers for a reason: The mass poisoning of Americans, many of them children. 

And the decisions made by the FDA influence drug approval authorities the world over.

It doesn’t always work, but it sure is better than nothing.

Yet nothing is exactly what the Heartland Institute seems to want, in the name of the free market.

But not in the name of health. This is the same organisation that for years lobbied for tobacco companies, trying to murky the waters around the damage caused by these toxic products.

Check out this pdf of a 1998 President’s letter from the Institute, on the University of California’s Legacy Tobacco Company Documents website. I just can’t decide what my favourite claim is, that smoking seven cigarettes a day is just fine and dandy for your health (but smoking eight might cause trouble?). Or perhaps it is that tobacco can’t be that addictive because there are so many quit-smoking products on the market.

As Nicolas Rasmussen, a professor of history of science and medicine at UNSW and an expert in the history of the pharmaceutical industry put it: “All drugs that are biologically active, or are any use at all, can also kill you or hurt you badly.”

If there was no expert assessment, he said, “you the consumer, without any expertise, would be sold poisons”.

The Heartland Institute campaign is dangerous, and these drug companies should know better than donating to such an organisation.