Drug assurance

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Ben Goldacre is a British doctor, writer and media critic. He has tackled numerous issues, from homeopaths to nutrition, as well as the way the media reports on them.

But his current cause du jour, which has gained widespread attention, is his indictment of the pharmaceutical industry.

In his 2012 book “Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients,” Goldacre meticulously documents how drug firms are unwittingly given leeway to hide

negative data and pull the wool over the eyes of government officials, doctors and, ultimately, patients.

Goldacre’s research has piqued the interest of British parliamentarians and raised serious questions about how drug companies conduct trials and how those trials get published.

His findings are further proof that the multibillion-dollar drug industry, like any such sector, cannot be trusted to police itself.

And that’s what makes a recent action by Canada’s health minister so curious.

Against the advice of various health groups and civil servants, Leona Aglukkaq decided last year to let drug companies voluntarily alert doctors and pharmacists of potential shortages of medicine, an increasing concern in recent years.

According to documents obtained by The Canadian Press (CP), critics warned in February 2011 that such an approach would leave public health “susceptible to bad company behaviour” because there would be no way to punish manufacturers who fail to report shortages.

Aglukkaq’s only concession was to tell the industry that “regulatory alternatives” would be implemented if the voluntary approach did not work.

That is a big gamble.

Groups such as the Canadian Cancer Society and the Canadian Anesthesiologists’ Society insist that the only way to ensure medications such as chemotherapy drugs and antibiotics are available is for Ottawa to require full disclosure on planned or unexpected gaps in production.

A spokesman for the minister said legislating mandatory reporting would take too long and unnecessarily delay information getting to the department’s website.

But a Cancer Society analyst says information is already inadequate.

“We know that drug shortages are increasing, but because nobody’s tracking them systemically on a mandatory basis, we still don’t know where or how they’re impacting patients,”

Lauren Dobson-Hughes told CP.

The drug industry is a powerful force, and this Conservative government has a record of pandering to corporate interests.

But drug supply is no ordinary concern. It can mean life or death for Canadian citizens.

Health Canada already has an obligation to closely monitor how drugs come to market. It also has an obligation to ensure they’re there when we need them.

Organizations: Canadian Press, Canadian Cancer Society, Health Canada

Geographic location: Canada, Ottawa

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