Corporate Funding for Health Campaigns

As readers from the world of healthcare likely already know, it’s not always seen as an uncontroversially good thing when a company with deep pockets gets involved in (i.e., provides funding for) a health-oriented project or campaign.

Check this story, from The Guardian: Concern over cancer group’s link to drug firm

A pan-European cancer campaign was under intense scrutiny last night over the scale of involvement of the world’s leading maker of cancer drugs.
Cancer United, which is due to be launched with a fanfare in Brussels tomorrow, is being presented as a pioneering effort by a coalition of doctors, nurses and patients to push for equal access to cancer care across the EU. However, the campaign is being entirely funded by Roche, the maker of Herceptin and Avastin. A senior company executive sits on the board. The company’s PR firm Weber Shandwick is the secretariat and has been heavily promoting it to clinicians and journalists. And the principal study on which it is based has been hotly contested – and was also funded by Roche.

So the worry, here, is that Roche, a large pharmaceutical company, may use the Cancer United campaign as a way of advancing its own interests, rather than advancing the interests of cancer patients. Indeed, since one of the goals of the campaign is to effect public policy, the real worry is that Roche is using Cancer United as a front for attempts to change public policy in a way that promotes corporate interests.

Is that a fair worry? The story quotes Professor John Smyth of Edinburgh University (who wrote the foreward to the aforementioned report)…

There is absolutely nothing inappropriate about having the support of industry. I wish people would stop seeing them as the enemy.

Unfortunately, this is absolutely right and absolutely misses the point. The point is not whether industry is the enemy. Clearly they’re not. Industry has an essential role to play. The point is that industry’s motives are their own, and they differ from the motives of cancer patients, cancer researchers, and makers of public policy.

I don’t often quote myself, but this bit from an article I wrote in 2004 sort of sums it up:

…we want the things that corporations can produce. But it is important to note that the way corporations serve the public good is by seeking profit; and the route to profit is to produce a valuable commodity (i.e., something individuals, qua consumers, want). This insight of Adam Smith’s is an important one, and it works as a generalization about the nature of a market economy (Smith 1776). But the significance of this insight, for our purposes here, is to be found in the fact that for corporations, the public good is only a contingent effect, not a first-order goal. For them, contributing to the public good is an aspiration (perhaps) and also a (hopefully frequent) side-effect of their profit-seeking behaviour. But it’s not guaranteed. So, we as citizens are right to be wary of corporations….

So no, the point is not that industry is “the enemy.” (Well, some people think it’s the enemy, but that’s silly.) The real point is that corporate interests — even the interests of well-meaning corporations full of kind-hearted people — are not the same as the interests of any other relevant group or individual. This is a point that both sides may all-too-easily forget: the worry about corporate funding isn’t (or needn’t be) an accusation of vicious intent: it’s a point about the divergence of interests observed across a range of disparate individuals and groups. Being aware of what motivates each participant in a collaborative venture is likely in the interest of all.

Relevant Links:
Cancer United’s website
Roche Pharmaceuticals

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