Playing for the Pharma team: Christy Clark switches jerseys on drug safety

Independent drug oversight finds itself unwelcome in British Columbia.

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Unplugging the Therapeutics Initiative, the premier suggested, was in keeping with her commitment to “a businesslike manner” in running the government. “We are managing the costs of drugs as best we can,” she insisted in language verging on doublespeak. “Since I have been Premier, we have lowered the cost of generic drugs for seniors. And we have done that by working hard with the pharmacies that provide those drugs.”

But the need to control drug costs has to be balanced with “respecting the private sector,” she explained. The attack on the teams that audit drug safety and spending, she seemed to want people to believe, was necessary in “supporting an economy that is growing, that is going to pay for the things we need.”

Clark appeared to be suggesting the TI was being sacrificed to appease private interests.

Which would be a fitting outcome to the TI’s history, starting in the years when Gordon Campbell served as premier and began whittling down the TI’s budget and scope.

In 2008, the Liberals -- anxious to encourage pharmaceutical research investments -- convened an industry-dominated Pharmaceutical Task Force to investigate the Initiative. Five members of the nine member Task Force had drug industry ties, including Russell Williams, Canada's leading pharmaceutical industry lobbyist. The Task Force swiftly concluded the TI (which had won international praise by issuing early warnings about Vioxx, a drug named in 27,000 lawsuits for injury or death) needed "replacing or reconstituting."

The Task Force was especially anxious to eliminate the Therapeutic Initiative's role in determining what drugs should be covered by PharmaCare -- a recommendation the government quickly implemented, notes TI’s Jim Wright.

Judging by the government’s track record in recent years, the move to shut down the TI and snuff out its internal drug evaluation team looks like part of a plan, according to Alan Cassels, a UVic pharmaceutical policy analyst. "Most of the enterprise of drug policy research has ground to a halt in B.C.," he says. "Many of the research leaders within the government are gone."

The affected scientists were all closely involved in staging major studies of physician prescribing practices, and the safety of a wide array of drugs, Cassels notes. The drugs under study included antipsychotics, smoking cessation drugs, and Alzheimers drugs, he explains.

All of this research had the potential to seriously dent the international drug companies whose products were being investigated, Cassels says. "The Alzheimer drugs, especially, are expensive drugs with huge potential for market growth internationally that face important questions about effectiveness. The pharmaceutical industry really doesn't like people doing this kind of research because it's independent research, it's clean and hopefully objective, and they don't have control over the results. So you can imagine how much pressure there is to discredit it and perhaps even shut it down."

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