Monday, November 27, 2006

The American Diabetes Association and Its Pharmaceutical Donors

The New York Times reported last week about potential institutional conflicts of interest affecting the American Diabetes Association. The Times' article's main focus was on the organization's ties to the food industry, especially to makers of highly caloric food:

SnackWell’s Sugar-Free Lemon Creme cookies have nearly as many calories as some sugar-rich cookies. Yet until recently the box featured an American Diabetes Association logo, advertising the cookie as a 'proud sponsor' of the charity’s efforts on behalf of the nation’s 21 million diabetics.

Foods like the Sugar-Freedom Eskimo Pie and Frosted Shredded Wheat have also sported the American Diabetes Association logo over the years. The companies paid the A.D.A. to be associated with a respected voice for healthful eating. The association wanted the money to finance its uphill battle against a widening epidemic of Type 2 diabetes, which is associated with obesity.
To its credit, the ADA has started to rethink its relationship with the food industry.

But in the last year the A.D.A. began rethinking how it raises money from companies, especially from those whose primary business is selling foods and beverages that are high in calories, even if they have created some sugar-free items.

The group has allowed some food company deals to expire and has turned down millions of dollars in new sponsorships.
However, although it received less attention in the article, what may be a more important issue is the ADA's relationships with pharmaceutical companies (quotes below somewhat re-ordered.)

Though they often present the most difficult choices, food companies represent a small segment of the A.D.A.’s corporate support. Pharmaceutical companies remain the largest corporate contributors, but the guidelines have not affected them as much because the A.D.A. has never allowed its logo to be put on specific medicines.

Others remain concerned about the A.D.A.’s relationships with pharmaceutical companies. Their presence is evident throughout the charity, from its annual convention, which is largely underwritten by drug makers, to its board meetings, where pharmaceutical executives have served on the volunteer committees that set policy.

The A.D.A. says its independence is evident because it has often acted against the interests of the pharmaceutical industry. Last month, for example, a panel it appointed to study how to treat people at heightened risk of developing diabetes decided against recommending the use of higher-priced brand-name drugs.

But critics say the drug industry’s influence can be seen in the A.D.A.’s emphasis on the treatment of diabetics, which often involves drug therapy, over efforts to persuade people to change the way they live so that the disease can be prevented in the first place.

Dr. Peter Lurie, deputy director of the Health Research Group of Public Citizen, the government watchdog group, said the influence of pharmaceutical money can be very subtle.

'The question is what happens in the close calls,' he said. 'If you are at more cocktail parties, if you have more mugs from the company in your kitchen, you are just going to be more receptive.'

A.D.A. officials cited an event from several years ago to illustrate their resistance to such influence. An A.D.A. panel found that antipsychotic drugs could help fuel diabetes. The announcement angered a drug manufacturer, Eli Lilly and Company, a longstanding A.D.A. benefactor that stood to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in lawsuits.

Some A.D.A. officials said they believed the company became so angry it sought to have Dr. Kahn fired, a charge the company denies.

Either way, nothing happened. Dr. Kahn, the association’s chief scientific officer, kept his job.

'Show me one instance where money has caused us to do something that is wrong,' Dr. Kahn said in an interview. 'You can’t.'
One starts to wonder whether there is any large US health care non-profit corporation that does not receive a significant amount of funding from the for-proft health care sector.

It may be very hard to prove such relationships have caused not-for-profit organizations like the ADA to do "something wrong," especially if one demands a scientific level of proof of causation.

On the other hand, a not-for-profit that gets a large amount of money from, say, the pharmaceutical industry might be hesitant to be critical of the industry or its products, or prone to give the industry the benefit of a doubt.

But even such relatively subtle biases could put the industrial benefactor's interests ahead of the not-for-profit organization's own mission.

Large, stable funding streams from commercial firms may be tempting, but not-for-profit leaders must ask themselves if they are worth the doubts they ought to raise.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting about this issue.

90,000 pharma reps in the usa,you can't watch the evening news without being bombarded.

What irks me is that the Eli Lilly company's blockbuster Zyprexa has been implicated in causing TEN times greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
They then turn around and sell other blockbuster drugs to treat the same diabetes.
Daniel Haszard

RJ said...

Great article! I came across a diabetic who worked for the ADA, as a volunteer for a diabetic support group.

He taught diabetics how to eat better, but he was fired when doctors and ADA officials complained about a loss of revenue because people were buying less diabetic drugs.

He's now the author of a book that my wife bought from called "Death to Diabetes".

Here's the video where he talks about the ADA:


Unknown said...

Diabetic retinopathy could be associated with poorer memory and diminished brain power in people with Type 2 diabetes, according to a new research.