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Cancer, conferences & big drug $$$

Interesting that the giant pharma company Pfizer Inc. was the major sponsor of a national cancer conference in Ottawa, September 23-26, called Go Public: The Global Leadership Program for Cancer Control. It’s a great way to extend a generous helping hand to events like this one – and get some very good PR to boot. We have no idea how much Pfizer spent on this conference, but the high profile speakers, the glitzy venue – Ottawa’s Westin Hotel – and the company’s prominence on the event’s web site suggest it wasn’t chump change.

…But almost nothing compared to the $2.3 billion fine Pfizer has been ordered to pay for promoting ‘off-label’ marketing of its drugs in the United States. (Off-label is the practice of MDs prescribing drugs for a use not approved by the FDA or Health Canada). $2.3 billion is the highest such fine in US history – not a surprise, it’s huge. “The complaint charged that Pfizer sent doctors on all-expense-paid trips to resorts, gave out free massages, and paid kickbacks to doctors, all to get them to prescribe its drugs for off-label uses,” Business Week reported in early September, adding: “Although it is legal for physicians to write such prescriptions, and a common practice (italics ours), companies are barred from actually promoting their drugs for purposes other than those that have won Food & Drug Administration approval.”

As for the conference itself, Mark MacKenzie of Prevent Cancer Now reported: “Certainly primary prevention was mentioned several times.But there is a disturbing general consensus that is pretty much entrenched in the cancer community as to what primary prevention means: reduction of tobacco use, better nutrition, and more exercise. Maybe throw sun block in there – but next to no attention is given to removing the involuntary carcinogens from the air we breathe, the water we drink and our food, etc.” (Editor’s Note: At conferences like this one, it’s not wise to bite that hand that makes the whole show possible, especially as Pfizer expects that treating cancer will be the ticket to keeping company finances healthy when its all time best-selling cholesterol drug, Lipitor, loses its patent advantage to generics in 2015. See Forbes 2008 story, Can Cancer Cure Pfizer?)

Heads up: A very good book called The Push To Prescribe: Women and Canadian Drug Policy , has just been published by Women’s Press, Toronto. It’s an eye-opening read describing the more contemptible practices of Big Pharma, which – according to Dr. Nancy Olivieri’s Foreword – “now has unprecedented control over the evaluation, regulation and promotion of its products” in Canada. Pfizer figures quite prominently. (Despite the title, it’s a great book for men too!).

Also in this issue on An Ounce …