Italian journalist argues against pharma-sponsored press events

Amelia Beltramini

About Amelia Beltramini

Amelia Beltramini, of Italy, is managing editor at Focus, a popular science monthly. She has been a journalist for 33 years, is the author of “Sentirsi sani” (2005), a book about the marketing of screenings and check ups, and served on the board of the Ordine dei giornalisti della regione Lombardia, which judges ethical controversies.

During my stay in England at the European conference on health journalism co-sponsored by AHCJ and Coventry University, one issue caught my attention.

The discussion turned to press events sponsored by pharmaceutical companies. It was argued that accepting invitations had advantages, such as savings in travel expenses, accommodations and conference registration fees.

Some participants argued that these goodies came with no side effects, provided that the report of the conference published by the journalist would close with a disclaimer that the author was a guest of the company. Readers should understand what this implies.

I strongly disagree with this opinion for five reasons:

  1. Although journalists or their news organizations save money, the public pays a price in terms of wrong framing, misleading health information and manipulated data. Readers buy a newspaper or a magazine or switch on the television set to receive unbiased information.
  2. Not all readers are able to read between the lines so any financial relationships should be clear. Health care journalists have the same ethical obligations as medical doctors since pharmaceutical industry gifts can influence both. The Council of Ethical and Judicial Affairs of THE American Medical Association deliberated on Dec. 3, 1990, and incorporated into the American Medical Association’s code of ethics for the medical profession, language that dealt with this issue. It states that “Subsidies from industry should not be accepted directly or indirectly to pay for the costs of travel, lodging, or personal expenses of the physicians who are attending the conferences and meetings.” The same rule should apply to health care journalists. For pharmaceutical companies this promotional spending is a very rewarding form of advertising, because it creates obligation and the need to reciprocate, eroding professional values. The reader or journalist, too, is a fiduciary relationship based on high standards of conduct, and journalists have an obligation to avoid conflicts of interest.
  3. In countries where drugs advertising is allowed, surreptitious advertising in articles takes away much-needed resources from legitimate advertisements.
  4. In countries where drug advertising is not allowed (as it is the case in most European countries), the report of press conferences turns into surreptitious advertising, often without caveats.
  5. Furthermore, presentations at congresses or conferences were important in the past when peer-reviewed journals were not accessible online. Nowadays news is released before a journal’s publication so there is no reason to be late with the news. I believe there is an opposite risk. It still may be possible to publish unconfirmed (or wrong) news. That’s why, in my opinion, congresses have lost most of their appeal. Between a journalist and his or her readers, there is a fiduciary relationship which is based on high standards of conduct, and journalists have an obligation to avoid conflicts.

Congresses are often organized by professional societies who depend upon undisclosed industry funding (manufacturers of drugs, and devices) either directly or through sponsor exibit booths and sponsorhip money. Often presentations are not peer- reviewed, or peer reviewers are society’s board members who receive speaking or consulting fees from companies, and the methodological quality of speeches and abstract are difficult to assess. Too often there is no accessible disclosure on the financial ties of authors.

I would like to hear what others think about this issue, and let’s use the European discussion list to get a conversation going.