To celebrate the launch of its new Ice Mint coated nicotine gum a few years ago, Pfizer Canada hired “brand ambassadors” dressed in ski suits to give out free samples in Calgary and Toronto. The company’s press release declared:
“The new formulation of Nicorette gum is another option for smokers who want to free themselves from tobacco dependence. Quitting smoking is a difficult addiction to overcome. People who quit smoking may suffer severe cravings and withdrawal symptoms; however, using Nicorette Ice Mint Coated Gum can help smokers quit by reducing nicotine cravings and withdrawal symptoms and significantly improve their chances to quit smoking.”
Sounds pretty straightforward, except that the pitch isn’t attributed to the Pfizer PR firm, but to a physician, Dr. Rob Weinberg – a doctor who was paid by Pfizer for participating in drug promotion. He is a family practice physician in Toronto.
Canadians expect doctors to provide sound, neutral advice about treatment for health issues. But some, like the good Dr. Weinberg, are paid by pharmaceutical companies to publicize and promote specific drugs, in this case helping to influence even the way smokers approach their battle to quit.
And Pfizer regularly pays physicians in Canada in exchange for testimonials about its smoking-cessation aids without publicly disclosing those financial ties – even though research shows that the vast majority of ex-smokers have successfully quit on their own.
Australian research published this spring in the Public Library of Science Medicine now suggests that unaided cessation methods (cold turkey or gradually reducing before quitting) is actually the most successful way to quit after all, despite Big Pharma’s expensive campaigns to convince us why we need to buy their products if we really want to quit.
In fact, as with problem drinking, gambling, and narcotics use, population studies show consistently that up to three-quarters of smokers who permanently stop smoking do so without any form of assistance.
Dr. Jerome P. Kassirer, professor at the Tufts University School of Medicine and editor-in-chief emeritus of the New England Journal of Medicine, says:
“There are enormous connections between what the drug companies do – and what doctors practice, say, and write.”
Although these Big Pharma-funded conflicts-of-interest don’t receive the same level of media attention in Canada as they do in the U.S., the problem is “alive and well here”, according to Dr. Kassirer, author of On the Take: How Medicine’s Complicity with Big Business Can Endanger Your Health.
“It’s been swept under the rug in Canada. I think it’s a problem.”
A Canadian study reported by CanWest Media found that researchers working in the area of smoking cessation who receive money from pharmaceutical companies are more likely to conclude in their research that nicotine replacement therapy has a better chance of helping people quit than those researchers without drug company funding.
Dr. Paul McDonald, a health studies professor at the University of Waterloo who conducted the study, observed:
“It’s possible that because of the way this science has been conducted, the benefits of the therapy have been overestimated. In the last year, there have been growing calls within the medical community for a change in rules to limit relationships with drug companies that could impact a doctor’s impartiality.”
The trouble with smoking cessation medication like Pfizer’s Nicorette gum doesn’t lie with product safety — most experts agree they can help some people quit smoking.
But there are growing concerns that doctors funded by the drug industry may overly promote the benefits to encourage more people to buy the medication that they’re being paid to push.