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Pfizer Subsidized Seminars Raise Red Flags

Reut Cohen |
November 8, 2010 | 9:39 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

(Creative Commons)
(Creative Commons)
In October the National Press Foundation personally selected 15 journalists to attend an all-expenses paid conference on cancer in Washington D.C. In December, the National Press Foundation will host a similar program about Alzheimer’s disease. Although promoted by the National Press Foundation, one major pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, finances these events.

This undoubtedly casts a shadow over the important workshops and raises concerns about the objectivity of journalists whose medical education depends upon a giant in the pharmaceutical industry.

“I cannot believe this issue doesn’t cause outrage with more journalists,” said Gary Schwitzer, publisher of HealthNewsReview.org, in a phone interview.

The National Press Foundation president Bob Myers has argued that the pharmaceutical company does not have input on the meeting and attendees.

But according to Merrill Goozner, senior correspondent for The Fiscal Times in Washington, D.C., Pfizer dictated the agenda for October’s cancer conference. While participants said that Pfizer was not even mentioned at the program, serious ethical concerns remain.

Schwitzer argues that whether or not Pfizer is mentioned at these seminars, a taint remains when alternatives for educating journalists are available.

“Why does it have to be this way when there are other cleaner, arguably more acceptable ways, to get the training done?” Schwitzer points out.

Pfizer’s underwriting of conferences and seminars provides the pharmaceutical company with a unique opportunity to interact with journalists.

Critics warn journalists to be careful when attending these conferences as they can easily affect objectivity, especially as friendlier relationships develop.

“If the goal really is for education, the same rules that apply to doctors should apply to journalists,” said John Mack, editor of Pharma Marketing News, in a phone interview.

While some medical journalists are linked in some fashion to pharmaceutical companies without being held accountable, doctors are often under fierce pressure to avoid the impression of any kind of conflict of interest.

Approximately 17,000 doctors and nurses received compensation from pharmaceutical companies, upward of $250 million dollars, for promoting drugs, serving as medical consultants and speaking at conferences in 2009 and 2010. ProPublica, a non-profit independent newsroom that produces investigative journalism, located records indicating misconduct in 18 U.S. states, 15 of which are the most populous. Along with misconduct, some doctors were reprimanded by their respective state medical boards. Others did not have proper credentials to work as specialists and researchers for pharmaceutical companies.

“Health care has conflicts of interests around every corner,” Schwitzer said.

Restrictions on doctors who maintain relationships with pharmaceutical companies, especially compared to journalists, are stringent in contrast to the lapse of judgment—and inattention—regarding the massive programs subsidized by Pfizer.

Pharmaceutical companies and doctors are obligated to adhere to federal regulations and their own standards. Companies, from Pfizer to GlaxoSmithKline, are accountable to the Food and Drug Administration. Further, overall presentations and materials are required to adhere to the FDA regulations about the way products are labeled.

Critics like Gary Schwitzer hope to have a conversation with the National Press Foundation to address the ramifications of one pharmaceutical company sponsoring journalism workshops.

“Pfizer has been very aggressive to bring journalists inside,” said John Mack, who has attended Pfizer conferences.

“I have been critical of many articles that have been in the press that are written like almost a press release,” said Mack. The pharmaceutical companies, he argues, may complain about bad press but get good press in many cases when reporters refrain from reporting the cons of new drugs and treatments.

Schwitzer agrees. “It’s the stories we don’t see that may be the most telling of all, “ he cautions. “It’s what the journalist may have failed to report.”

In many cases, articles have exaggerated benefits and minimized the harm about new medical breakthroughs. There is, at the least, a conflict of interest when journalists attend an all-expenses paid seminar subsidized by only one major pharmaceutical company.

Pfizer has an obvious, possibly understandable, interest in reaching out to journalists. It is in the business of making money.

Yet journalists ought to avoid courting controversy and associating their name with one major pharmaceutical company. In 2009 Pfizer’s 2.3 billion dollar fraud settlement set a record for the largest fraud charges fine in history.

Journalists should, moreover, abide by the Code of Ethics to minimize conflicts of interest in their critical reporting otherwise their judgment becomes compromised and they tend to influence rather than inform and so become collaborators instead of watchdogs.

Reach Reporter Reut Cohen here.



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