Select Committee on Health Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 316 - 319)



  Q316  Chairman: Can I welcome our witnesses to this morning's first session and thank you all for your helpful written evidence; we are most grateful to you. Could I ask each of the witnesses briefly to introduce themselves to the committee, starting with Ms Letts?

  Ms Letts: My name is Melinda Letts. I am an independent consultant working with charities and other health organisations. Until May of this year I chaired the Long-Term Medical Conditions Alliance and among a number of other things I am now a Director of Ask About Medicines Week and Chair of the Committee on Safety of Medicines Patient Information Working Group.

  Mr Woolas: I am Mr Phil Woolas. I am Member of Parliament for the Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency and a representative as a trustee of the Beat the Benzos Campaign, which is a support group for involuntary addicts on benzodiazepine drugs.

  Paul Flynn: I am Paul Flynn, Member of Parliament for Newport West, a long term critic of the pharmaceutical industry, especially their disease-mongering and over-prescription and the medicalisation of society.

  Mr Prior: I am Cliff Prior. I am Chief Executive of Rethink, which is a charity for people affected by severe mental illness. I am also Vice Chair of the Long-Term Medical Conditions Alliance and a member of the Medicines Commission.

  Chairman: Thank you. We have one declaration of interest from Mr Austin.

  John Austin: I just wish to declare that I chair the All-Party Parliamentary Osteoporosis Group which receives administrative and secretarial support from the National Osteoporosis Society, which is mentioned in Mr Flynn's evidence as receiving some financial assistance from the pharmaceutical industry.

  Q317  Chairman: We are splitting this morning's session into two, as you well know, and it will be roughly an hour for each group, so could I ask for the questions and answers to be brief and sharp. Mr Flynn, could I start with you? How did you get into this whole area? Am I right in thinking that it was through constituency concerns?

  Paul Flynn: Yes, it was; it was entirely through constituency concerns. The first one was when a constituent committed suicide using the drug Roaccutane and I was shocked to discover that there was no organisation for the defence of people in this circumstance and the patient organisation that one would have thought would have represented people was one that had a very large donation from the manufacturers of Roaccutane because there was a widespread belief that those on this drug were more prone to commit suicide. Over the years I have come across in my constituency work a whole range of instances where those that one would have thought would have been the first line of defence in the interests of patients, the charities and the patient organisations, were being influenced and certainly being financed by the pharmaceutical industry. I have learned over the years that it is impossible to over-estimate the greed, the guile and the resourcefulness of the pharmaceutical industry. While the science is wonderful the marketing of their products, I am afraid, is very much out of self-interest in order to maximise their profits and I believe that these organisations that we look towards to defend the patients are ones that have been influenced—not corrupted; many of them are magnificent organisations—and we do notice that those that have the largest donations are often the ones that have the quietest voices when it comes to exposing the side effects of pharmaceutical drugs.

  Q318  Chairman: You specifically say in your submission that some patient organisations may refrain from criticism of pharmaceutical companies because those companies fund the organisations. You give an example of a concern on page 4 of your evidence where you talk about a particular product, where you suggest that information from clinical trials is being suppressed and, "A courageous leading campaign has been pursued by MIND who receives no contributions from any pharmaceutical company. There has been silence from SANE and Depression Alliance who accept donations". This is fairly strong criticism. Can you expand on this?

  Paul Flynn: I was present at the formation of an All-Party Group on Depression of which the Depression Alliance were the main sponsors. Again, they are an organisation that certainly do very good work but it has been significant during the past year, and I have had two debates on Seroxat in that period, where this international scandal on the damage that is done by Seroxat, involving the suppression of files, an immense scandal involving millions of people, was not exposed by the Depression Alliance or the other patient organisations. Depression Alliance did confess to taking, in meetings we had with them, 80% of their funding from the pharmaceutical industry. They were silent when this matter was being exposed by organisations like MIND who take not a penny and a very courageous stand was made by Richard Brook of MIND. The heroes of the exposure of this scandal were not the MHRA or those bodies that should be defending the patients. It was very much the campaigning patient organisations and I think very recently, when Viox was exposed as being a very dangerous drug, I went on to the Arthritis Care website, again, an organisation that is doing a magnificent job, and it was significant that they were advising people to continue taking Viox even though it has been exposed as a drug that has probably killed by a minimum estimate 7,000 people and caused 25,000 heart attacks. Arthritis Care was suggesting that people continue to take the drug and then see their doctors and probably go on to another drug. It is not insignificant that the website is financed by Merck Sharp and Dohme, manufacturers of Viox itself. The charities and the patient organisations will say they are not influenced unduly by this but why on earth then are they taking the drawings because we certainly know that the ABPI have said that they regard the patients' associations as the ground troops. They had a battle plan in which they wanted to employ ground troops in the form of patient support groups in order to weaken the political, ideological and professional defences. That is a declared policy of the pharmaceutical industry, to use patient organisations to subvert us. I will make one final point. In Paris last week the WHO were challenged on their view that depression will become the third greatest cause of illness in the world by 2020 and they were challenged on whether they were being unusually influenced by the pharmaceutical industry. The defence of the World Health Organisation was, "Yes, we are suspicious of the pharmaceutical industry but we do listen to charities and patient organisations". I believe that for all of us, politicians, the public, our defences go up when we have advertisements and persuasion from the drug companies but we are open to persuasion by organisations like the patient organisations we trust. I believe we see it within this House when some of our All-Party Groups have been used as Trojan horses to bring the voice of the pharmaceutical industry into this House and to use it generally throughout the whole of the medical establishment.

  Q319  Chairman: One of the questions I asked at the start of this inquiry internal to our committee was to look at the number of All-Party Groups that do have a connection with the industry. Do you have any specific examples of policies being influenced by All-Party Groups in the interests of the industry?

  Paul Flynn: I sit on many of these All-Party Groups in order to watch the activities that go on. I was rather alarmed to receive a document from an organisation called Phase IV recently which tried to recruit me in order to subvert, in my view, the All-Party Group on Rheumatoid Arthritis in order to find what they described as success stories and tragedy stories in order to promote the use of the anti-TNF drugs. These are drugs that have been approved by NICE but have certain side effects that NICE warned of. This was an attempt by a body, which is a PR agency, to use the group in that way. I believe that every time we have invitations to All-Party Groups the invitations are littered, rather like the clothes that are worn by racing drivers, with advertisements for the companies. They are not doing this out of some charitable reason or for the benefit of the patients. They are doing it to advance their position in this way. The damaging effect is not that we can say in this case or that case that they have actually worked in a way that was obviously promoting the drug, but their main effect is to silence the organisations when they should be critical. I believe the evidence is that the regulatory authorities are ones of self-regulation that are not working, that are weak and we are seeing, in the case of many of these organisations that exist, a lack of the alertness and the desire to defend the patient interest against a whole host of examples we have had of drugs over the years from Thalidomide, Destobel, Araldine, now to Viox and a whole stream of others. My lifetime experience of the pharmaceutical industry is that about 50% of all medicinal drugs have harmful side effects and the other 50% have side effects that we have yet to discover. It has been a history of experimentation on a large scale between patients and drugs and, sadly, the results on the harm of the drugs were only revealed in many cases when they had been used by millions of people. We do not have bodies that defend patients' interests in the way that they should.

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