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Conflicts of interest alleged in ‘multi-layered web of influence’ as Big Pharma pays millions to informal Parliament groups

Conflicts of interest alleged in ‘multi-layered web of influence’ as Big Pharma pays millions to informal Parliament groups
Health-related semi-formal working groups of the British Parliament are taking millions in donations from the pharmaceutical industry, which presents an obvious potential for conflicts of interest, a new study has said.

All-Party Parliamentary Groups, or APPGs, are the less-regulated cousins of select committees, where MPs and peers interested in a certain topic can work together. There are currently over 700 of them, focused on issues from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, and from a genetic condition called ‘22q11 Syndrome’ to zoos and aquariums.

Just like the formal parliamentary working groups, APPGs can raise awareness of certain problems, hold inquiries, and produce reports, but they have fewer formal rules as to how they should operate. For example, they are allowed to involve external organizations to co-author their publications, or take funding from external sponsors to cover their administrative expenses or organize events.

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A new study published in the scientific journal PLOS One focuses on 146 health-related registered APPGs and the money some of them received from the drug industry. 

Between 2012 and 2018, pharmaceutical companies provided almost £2.2 million ($3 million), or roughly 30 percent of all funding received by 58 such groups, the study’s authors estimate.

The money in question was paid either by drug companies themselves or through industry-funded patient organizations, which authors of the study consider lobbyist vehicles for the corporations. They said the arrangement is part of a “multi-layered web of influence” that corporations have on policy making.  

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The APPGs for Cancer and Health were the biggest recipients by value, with the former receiving virtually all its funding (99.61 percent) from industry sources. 22 groups received 100 percent of their external funding from them.

“We suggest that, in the context of health related APPGs, payments from the pharmaceutical industry represent institutional conflicts of interest as they create circumstances where the primary interest (policymaking in the interests of public health) is at risk of being unduly influenced by the secondary interest (the pharmaceutical industry’s goal of maximising profits),” the study said.

The researchers backed up their argument by pointing to the content of the output that the informal groups have made over the years. Seven publications by APPGs for Cancer and HIV that involved input from external organisations named 28 contributors from 13 different companies. Nineteen of them had provided payments to the APPG publishing the report, which “suggests that there is a link between providing payments to APPGs and being involved in their activities.”

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Speaking to the Guardian, the authors of the study stressed that they were not alleging any impropriety on the part of the APPGs they looked into. But the groups “are a key part of policymaking and it is clear that corporate money is entering the APPG bloodstream,” Emily Rickard and Dr Piotr Ozieranski, from Bath University’s Department of Social and Policy Sciences, said.

They believe that Big Pharma’s influence on healthcare policies has to be analysed holistically, and that there need to be stricter transparency rules for APPGs to manage conflicts of interest. Parliament is currently examining the institution and whether it requires additional regulation.

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