All Is Not As It Seems—Cancer Group has Big Pharma Roots
News anchor Tom Clark led off a recent CTV evening newscast with a dramatic report on cancer: "Some disturbing news tonight on a devastating disease that touches the lives of almost every single family in this country. A group called the Canadian Cancer Advocacy Coalition suggests that where you live and how much your province spends on cancer care goes a very long way in determining whether you will survive the disease." After studying seven years of cancer statistics, the group had found that British Columbia spends the most on cancer, and enjoys the lowest death rates. "But, as you move east, spending drops, death rates rise. Far fewer cancer patients survive in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia where the least amount is spent on cancer care," CTV said.
Dr. William Hryniuk of CCAC didn't mince words in calling for a national cancer strategy. "It's your money or your life," he told CTV. "You either get the treatment you need which is going to cost some money, or you don't survive. It's that simple."
But Toronto newspaper editors seemed unmoved. Next day, the Star ran a 270-word Canadian Press story on page A16. The Globe & Mail made space for 100 words. Other rivals took a pass. Sadly, no story — not even CTV's barnburner — gave a clear explanation as to who, or what, the CCAC is. Indeed, the Globe didn't use the group's name. CTV called it "a group of people desperately concerned about the state of cancer care in Canada — survivors, their families, doctors and scientists."
A CCAC news release said it's the "only full-time, registered, non-profit group dedicated solely to citizen advocacy on cancer issues" in Canada. On its website, the group uses the slogan 'Grassroots Action for Cancer Care'. But the sponsor list suggests deeper roots in the pharmaceutical trade. Here it is: Amgen Canada Inc., AstraZeneca Canada Inc., Aventis Pharma Inc., Bristol-Myers Squibb Canada Inc., Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association Inc., Eli Lilly Canada Inc., Pharmacia Canada Inc., Purdue Pharma Inc., RX&D—Canada's Research Based Pharmaceutical Companies, Sanofi-Sythelabo Canada Inc., and Scotia Bank.
This phenomenon of organizations or spokespeople who claim to represent patients is becoming widespread," said Sharon Batt, author of Patient No More: The Politics of Breast Cancer. "I've had cancer myself,"she said, "when you're desperate for information, this kind of report is very alarmist. You want information you can rely on. Part of what makes a report reliable is where it comes from."
Joel Lexchin, an associate professor in the school of health management at York University, agreed the CCAC report was short on 'transparency'. Higher cancer budgets could benefit drug companies by boosting their products, he said, noting readers weren't told where funds for the report came from. "That should be made known if we are to judge the conclusions," Lexchin said. The CCAC report was 'interesting', he suggested, but not interesting enough to justify a campaign for bigger cancer budgets.
To this corner, media stories about advocacy groups are sadly incomplete when they don't explain who's paying the shot. Readers deserve better.
Don Sellar, Toronto Star, Feb. 7, 2004.