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Be wary of big money, health groups are warned

Corporate funding could skew research

By Michelle Healy
SA Today – 07/10/03

Non-profit health groups that accept money from corporations may gain valuable resources, but they also risk their credibility and independence, a report says.

More than 170 charities, professionals associations and university-based institutes benefit from corporate financial support, but they need to consider the downsides to such arrangements, says the report, "Lifting the Veil of Secrecy," by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. The support comes from food, agribusiness, chemical, pharmaceutical and other interests.

At one time, "the public had confidence that health charities and health professional groups were operating totally in the public’s interest to promote better public health," says Michael Jacobson, the center's executive director. “Then out comes little bits of information suggesting that these arrangements have strings attached."

For example, the report points to the American Medical Association's endorsement deal with medical equipment supplier Sunbeam.  After negative publicity, the AMA canceled that deal.

The report also notes that the Society for Women's Health Research came to the defense of a major benefactor, Wyeth, when the safety of hormone replacement therapy was questioned. The society also lent its name to a Novartis campaign to market a drug for irritable bowel syndrome.

One "particularly egregious relationship," the report says, is this year's $1 million grant from CocaCola to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.

"Previously, (the academy) said soft drinks were a cause of tooth erosion, and then $1 million later they said the relationship is unclear," Jacobson says. "Coke has silenced a critic and maybe even won an ally."

"It's absolutely not true" that the academy shifted on its policy, says Joel Berg, president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry Foundation.

The unrestricted grant is being used for oral health research and education, Berg says.

"To suggest that the arrangement would influence our position is ludicrous," he says. "Our mission, our integrity is such that we wouldn't accept (the grant) with any conditions."

It is naive to think that every group that gets industry funding has sold out, Jacobson says. "That's clearly not the case." But each group that takes this money "needs to consider the issue carefully,” he says.

"At the very least, the public has a right to expect full disclosure of all their sources of funding."


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