Advocacy groups rarely disclose pharma funding: study

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A new study reveals why it's been hard for government watchdogs and others to evaluate possible conflicts of interest among health-related advocacy groups. None disclose exact amounts, and only one out of four of these groups acknowledges industry funding on its website.

The study, appearing in the American Journal of Public Health, drew from the Eli Lilly grant registry, which listed $3.2 million given to 188 advocacy groups during the first two quarters of 2007, or about 10% of the firm's total grant giving. Cross-referencing those names on the web, they found 161 groups had websites, and 40 noted receipt of contributions from Lilly on their sites; only 10% acknowledged Lilly as a grant event sponsor. One group disclosed funding as a range, not an exact amount.

Considering the groups are “among the most influential and trusted stakeholders in US health policy,” it's reasonable to expect full disclosure about grantors, authors from Columbia University wrote. Organizations are often seen testifying before legislative or regulatory committees to ask for increased support of medical research, lobbying for drug coverage or advocating for FDA approval—goals that overlap with those of the pharmaceutical industry.

They also found the lack of disclosure "disappointing," because “either by design or through a convergence of interests, the [non-profits] in the current study pursued activities that promoted the sale of Lilly products.” For instance, 66% of the Lilly grants went to organizations concerned with neurosciences, and Lilly's two bestselling products in 2007 were the antipsychotic Zyprexa and antidepressant Cymbalta.

The Sunshine Act provisions in the US health reform law requiring companies to report payments to physicians should be amended to also require them to report payments to non-profits, the researchers wrote. Sens. Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Max Baucus (D-MT), the co-sponsors of the physician sunshine law, told The New York Times that they would consider pushing for such an amendment.

Last year Grassley probed industry donations given to 33 non-profit medical groups, finding that they had received $100 million in the form of contributions, ad revenue, exhibit fees and CME support. He's also called for transparency due to the groups' influence over policy.

Lilly was the first company to make its grant registry public. “The public availability of funding information is part of Lilly's commitment to working with patient groups ethically and openly and with mutual respect,” noted a Lilly spokesperson in an e-mail to MM&M. However, the firm does not require non-profits that receive its grants to do the same. As noted on the Lilly website, ‘‘We regularly publish US grant funding on line and encourage advocacy organizations to consider their own transparency efforts."

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