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Pundits regularly attacked pharmacare without disclosing Big Pharma ties

Dozens of op-eds opposing pharmacare from think tank analysts did not reveal their authors’ conflicts of interest

First published in The Breach.

As the Liberal government and New Democrats hashed out the details of a national drug plan that could vastly improve medication access for millions, a chorus of criticism and opposition appeared in Canada’s largest media outlets.   

Pharmacare legislation is a “bomb waiting to detonate your coverage,” a National Post op-ed warned Canadians. There is “nothing scarier” than government efforts to lower prices, stated another op-ed in The Hill Times comparing a national drug plan to “guerilla warfare” against the pharmaceutical industry.  

The authors of these op-eds, and dozens of others like them, were identified by the media outlets as policy experts at “independent” research institutes.  

In fact, a new investigation by the Council of Canadians reveals they all have ties to pharmaceutical and insurance companies, the industries with the most to lose from a public pharmacare program.

Many are current or former employees, lobbyists, or consultants for these companies. All work for think tanks that are funded by drug manufacturers like Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson and lobby groups like Innovative Medicines Canada, or whose boards are dominated by executives and lobbyists from pharma and insurance companies.

With the introduction of pharmacare legislation earlier this year, the efforts of these industry-linked voices appear to be multiplying, in a bid to derail and delay any further moves towards a single-payer system. 

Since March 2022, they published 49 op-eds attacking pharmacare, and their anti-pharmacare talking points were quoted in an additional 25 stories in Canadian digital and print media. 

None of these articles disclosed any conflicts of interest. 

No disclosures of ties to industry

Big Pharma and the insurance industry have for years lobbied vigorously against a universal public program, which would limit their pricing power (in the case of pharma corporations) and shrink their markets (in the case of insurers). 

But when the Liberal government and the NDP signed a confidence and supply agreement that had pharmacare legislation as one of its main planks, the industry-orchestrated torrent of media spin and opposition grew louder. It then intensified even further when a pharmacare bill was introduced in February. 

Pharma lobby headlines from the Breach
Articles written by industry-connected voices didn’t reveal their ties. Illustration: The Breach


Glaring conflicts of interest posed no barrier to these figures becoming regular sources of commentary on pharmacare in Canadian media.  

The Canadian Health Policy Institute’s Brett Skinner, for example, has spent years attacking public, single-payer pharmacare, penning op-eds with titles like “Voters beware: National pharmacare is unnecessary, bad for privately insured Canadians and costly for taxpayers,” and “Higher costs and inferior coverage. Why would Canadians even want pharmacare?” 

Many of these articles were authored while he was employed by Innovative Medicines Canada—the country’s main pharma lobby—as its director of health and economic policy. None of the publications that printed his work mentioned this fact.

Other op-eds and articles written by other industry-connected voices appeared on news websites frequented by government insiders and policymakers, such as The Hill Times and National Newswatch, the wire service at The Canadian Press, and national outlets like CBC news, The Globe and MailNational Post, and Global News, andThe Toronto Star.

The investigation’s media search was limited to digital and print media and excluded TV, radio, or podcast interviews.

A network of Big Pharma-friendly think tanks 

Pharmacare’s corporate opponents have long understood that to defend their profits, they need to be in control of the public narrative. 

But they are also keenly aware that few Canadians trust them to provide reliable advice on the health care system.  

That’s why these industries have spent decades supporting a network of think tanks that can deliver key messages to policymakers and the broader public for them.  

Pharma giants fund leading right-wing think tanks in Canada through donations and event sponsorships. The Macdonald-Laurier Institute, for example, has received funding from the likes of Pfizer, Merck, Roche, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca, as well as both of the two major Canadian and American drug pharma lobbies.

The Canadian Health Policy Institute, which describes its mandate as providing “evidence-based policy research” on the health system, operates on a pay-to-play model with pharmaceutical companies sponsoring research on topics of interest to them, including pharmacare.

The Conference Board of Canada, a self-described “non-partisan” think tank that is routinely cited in the media for analysis on a variety of topics, has received funding from Canada’s biggest pharma lobby, Innovative Medicines Canada, for reports that downplay the need for pharmacare. 

Its most recent pharma-funded report claimed that over 97 per cent of Canadians are already eligible for drug insurance—a widely cited figure in media stories that leading experts have denounced as one of the most pernicious “lies” told by pharmacare’s corporate opponents. 

Data for that report came from the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association, the leading insurance lobby group.

The think tanks’ relationships with pharmaceutical and insurance companies often go well beyond the financial support they receive. 

In many cases, industry executives or lobbyists sit on policy councils, boards of directors, and editorial boards, directing research and overseeing the stances these organizations take on pharmacare.  

The Montreal Economic Institute, for instance, is chaired by Hélène Desmarais, heiress to the billionaire Desmarais family that owns Canada Life, the largest insurer in Canada. 

The C.D. Howe Institute touts its research as “nonpartisan, evidence-based and subject to definitive expert review.” But when it comes to pharmacare, Big Pharma and the insurance industry representatives are frequently the ones doing the reviewing. Industry execs and lobbyists hold one-third of the seats on the Institute’s Health Policy Council

All too often, the experts providing a supposedly “independent” and “unbiased” analysis of pharmacare are themselves directly linked to the pharmaceutical or insurance industries. 

Behind their quasi-academic titles, many of them are current or former employees, lobbyists, or consultants for these two industries. 

Nigel Rawson, for instance, has published dozens of op-eds attacking pharmacare under the monikers of “Senior Fellow” at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and “Affiliate Scholar” with the Canadian Health Policy Institute. But Rawson is also a pharmaceutical industry consultant and a former employee of a drug manufacturer.

One of the Senior Fellows at the C.D. Howe Institute, Marcel Saulnier, is a lobbyist with a government relations firm that represents pharmaceutical companies and is currently lobbying the federal government on behalf of Johnson & Johnson about pharmacare. Saulnier was featured at a recent C. D. Howe event on pharmacare that was sponsored by Johnson & Johnson. 

Generating ‘white noise’ to drown out facts

For decades, pharmaceutical giants have spent millions building up what their internal documents refer to as an “intellectual echo chamber” of “like-minded” organizations, according to an investigation in The New York Times.

As historian Edward Nik-Khah has written, these long-term funding relationships mean that Big Pharma “could at a moment’s notice call upon a group of economists who could deliver a finely tuned message to achieve a political goal.”  

The ongoing fight over pharmacare is one such moment. 

The primary objective of the echo chamber of opposition to national pharmacare has been to forestall regulation by distorting public discourse.  

Rather than directly opposing the idea of extending universal drug coverage to all—an idea supported by a vast majority of people in Canada—Big Pharma and its allies have tried to sow doubt and confusion instead.  

They have downplayed the extent of current problems with inadequate drug coverage. They have sneered at the idea that Canada’s drug prices—now second highest in the world, after the U.S.—are excessive. And they have revived “zombie arguments” against pharmacare that have been debunked time and again in previous rounds of debate.

Big Pharma’s think tanks are like white noise generators that seek to drown out the facts in the policy discussion, reaching even the highest levels of policymaking.   

For years, industry-funded voices have targeted caucus and cabinet members with misinformation to impede progress on pharmacare.

Former Liberal MP Dr. Doug Eyolfson, who was a member of the Standing Committee on Health from 2016 to 2019, recently described how pharma-funded policy groups weakened the resolve of the Trudeau government in moving forward on pharmacare: 

“Much of the hesitancy regarding pharmacare (including from the Liberal government in which I served) was due to a tremendous amount of misinformation from different sectors with their own agendas. Aggressive lobbying and op-ed press pieces from various groups convinced many people that a national pharmacare program is prohibitively expensive, unnecessary and could delay the development of new medications.” 

A ‘firewall’ needed between Big Pharma and decision makers

The first phase of the new pharmacare program—universal, single-payer coverage for contraception and diabetes medication—would only marginally affect the profits of drug manufacturers and insurers. 

But the bill has nevertheless spooked these industries as it paves the way for a much more comprehensive single-payer universal program.  

Any delays in launching and implementing the program would greatly benefit these industries. A future Poilievre government could easily undo a pharmacare program that exists only on paper.

Already, the Conservative leader has been parroting research and talking points from industry-funded think tanks, as The Breach has previously reported.  

Corporate actors have proven their ability to overturn declared government policy in the past. Last year, an investigation from The Breach revealed the federal health minister was colluding with Big Pharma to halt reforms that could have saved Canadians billions in drug costs.  

Matthew Herder, a former board member at the drug pricing regulator who resigned in protest of excessive corporate influence, recently warned of similar dangers ahead for the pharmacare bill.  

“I saw first-hand how that process was influenced and controlled by the pharmaceutical industry and its many surrogate organizations,” he wrote. “With pharmacare now closer than ever before, we must not turn a blind eye to the insidious effects of conflicts of interest.” 

If it passes, the Pharmacare Act would establish a committee of five experts tasked with overseeing the implementation of universal, public pharmacare. Herder is unequivocal about the need to exclude any members who have financial and institutional ties to industry.  

“The government must put in place a firewall between those interests and the expert committee. Otherwise, Bill C-64 may amount to yet another dead letter in the long fight for access to affordable, essential medicines for all Canadians.” 

Nikolas Barry-Shaw

Nikolas Barry-Shaw

Nikolas is the Trade and Privatization Campaigner for the Council of Canadians and author of the book “Paved with Good Intentions.”

Donya Ziaee

Donya Ziaee

Donya Ziaee is a Communications Officer (Research & Analysis) at the Council of Canadians.

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Exposing Big Pharma’s campaign of misinformation on pharmacare