Regulatory Capture


Around the world, drug regulatory agencies spend billions of dollars engaged in activities which purport to ensure the safety, efficacy and quality of legal drugs. If the goal of regulation is to protect public health and safety, there can be no argument that it has failed. Safe drugs are not associated with annual rises in mortality and morbidity, effective drugs are not associated with increased prevalence of the conditions they are designed to treat and with greater chronicity of those conditions, quality drugs are not discovered to be contaminated with solvents months after their manufacture and release to the market. Effective regulation does not see companies repeatedly breaching standards and shrugging off sanctions.

According to the World Health Organisation, “In drug regulation, the government acts as the guardian of the public by controlling private powers for public purposes.”

Yep, they sure do act that way, but that’s exactly what it is – an act. Behind the failure of drug regulation is the fact that it is conducted by governments whose fortunes are entwined with those of the pharmaceutical industry. International drug regulators are one of the best examples, along with the regulators of the finance industry, of regulatory capture – the co-option of regulatory agencies by the organisations they regulate. Regulatory capture involves industry convincing regulators that their interests are convergent and manipulating regulatory processes for their own ends.

How this occurs is well documented and nicely summed up by the following quote from economist Fred Grygiel;

The road to Regulatory Capture is paved with some combination of regulator complacency, cozy relationships with regulated companies, and ultimately, conflicts of interest that may result in ethical, and in extreme cases, criminal misconduct. as a rule, regulation is acquired by the industry and is designed and operated primarily for its benefits.

In the financial sector, regulatory capture was epitomized by the claim that what was good for Wall Street was good for America and the idea that the industry and its regulators had shared goals.

Internationally it has become clear that government regulation of pharmaceutical companies has become a tool of the industry. Rather than protection, drug regulation is providing consumers with a false sense that the drugs they take are rigorously tested for safety and efficacy, that systems are in place to gather data on adverse reactions and withdraw drugs from the market where harms outweigh benefits, that the information provided to consumers is independent and scientific and that their health is protected by forces keeping industry in check. As such, regulation has become little more than an extension of the marketing departments for pharmaceutical companies, particularly in the absence of direct to consumer advertising.

Nowhere more than Ireland is the conflict of interest inherent in government regulation of the pharmaceutical industry more evident. Ireland is the largest net exporter of medicines in the world with 52% of global medicines originating from this country. Pharmaceutical drugs comprise 60% of the total value of Ireland’s exports and provide over 60,000 Irish jobs .

The Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland, Enda Kenny has made clear his view that the pharmaceutical industry is critical to economic success in Ireland and that the government sees itself benefitting from the fortunes of pharma. In a speech at the launch of Alexion Pharmaceutical’s new Irish plant last week he said

The pharmaceutical and biopharma industries play a vital role in our economy. Eight of the top 10 pharmaceutical companies in the world have Irish facilities, and the country is one of the premier global locations for pharmaceutical and chemical product manufacture. I want to thank Alexion Pharmaceuticals for this important investment and to assure the company of my Government’s on-going support.

In response, Leonard Bell, chief executive of Alexion Pharmaceutical said the company looked forward to an ongoing partnership with the Irish Government.

The Taoiseach also recently wrote the introduction to a report on growth by a pharmaceutical representative body in Ireland saying

The Irish Government and its agencies have developed and implemented a range of policies and supports to enable the continued growth of [the pharmaceutical sector] which is of strategic importance to the Irish economy in terms of driving growth and jobs. We are committed to continuing to work closely with industry to support and further develop these sectors.

Irish Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, when asked about economic recovery in Ireland openly discusses her concern about the loss of drug patents and rise of generic drugs and her plans to ensure Ireland is the most attractive country to manufacture pharmaceutical material for the market but also for clinical trials.

Ireland’s Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald, is married to a child and adolescent psychiatrist from the country’s premier university, Trinity College, who is a member of the  speakers bureau for Shire Pharmaceuticals and receives consulting fees from Shire and Eli Lilly. Frances Fitzgerald recently wrote an endorsement for a directory of ADHD services produced by HADD which claims ADHD is a medical/neurobiological condition in which the brain’s neurotransmitter chemicals, noradrenalin and dopamine do not work properly and on its website that non-medical approaches to treating ADHD are ineffective. 

When she hosted a public information event encouraging Irish Citizens to vote in favour of ratifying a treaty in a nationwide referendum, she spoke beside David Gallagher, the Managing Director of Pfizer Healthcare Ireland who supported her call for ratification of the economic treaty.

Recently the Irish government launched the Synthesis & Solid State Pharmaceutical Centre (SSPC) a partnership between Ireland’s universities, government and big pharma. The SSPC is part of a broader programme described as the largest ever state/ industry co-funded research investment in Ireland involving €200 million of Irish taxpayer funding and €100 million funding from the pharmaceutical industry.  The SSPC involves pharmaceutical companies Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Eli Lilly, and Merck, Eirgen Pharma, Innopharma Labs, Glantreo, and Amebis and educational institutions Athlone IT, Waterford IT, Trinity College Dublin, University College Cork, University College Dublin and NUI Galway.

The SSPC claims its objective is the retention, creation and transformation of direct jobs in the pharmaceutical industry in Ireland. Irish Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton TD, describes the project as a major investment in the future of research in Ireland, in the pharma sector, and ultimately in jobs. The Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan says that the SSPC in building a core capability in the area of process R&D will serve to cement the pharmaceutical industry in Ireland.

The project is led by Dr Mary Shire, Vice President for Research at the University of Limerick. Before taking her position at the University of Limerick, Dr Shire was over a period of 11 years a manager in a number of multinational pharmaceutical companies, developing inventions covered by 20 US patents for drug discovery. In 2004 she established a company, Accelerated Technology Solutions which provides training and consultancy to Irish pharmaceutical companies

It is in this environment of ‘partnership’ between the Irish Government, Irish Academia and Big Pharma that the regulatory agency, the Irish Medicines Board is expected, according to the WHO, to restrict the activities of the pharmaceutical industry in a way that is free from political and commercial influence.

Last week, the news broke that GSK in Ireland had released onto domestic and international markets, contaminated batches of the antidepressant Paroxetine. The contamination was detected by the FDA inspecting the Irish plant. GSK had failed to notify customers about the contamination and the FDA have threatened sanctions against the company.

On reading the story, I wondered what involvement the Irish Regulator had had in detecting this breach of regulations and what action it intended to take in response. It seemed remarkable that the American Regulator had discovered such a range of serious breaches of regulations by GSK in Ireland while the Irish Regulator had not. I wrote to the Irish Medicines Board asking whether GSK had reported the issue to the IMB and whether, if they had not, the IMB considered this a breach of regulations. I asked whether the IMB intended to impose sanctions on GSK.

The IMB’s response, which I provide verbatim, could have been written by GSK CEO Andrew Witty

In response to your queries, I can advise that GSK is voluntarily recalling batches of medicines that contain certain batches of Paroxetine active substance that were manufactured at its Cork site. On the basis of available data, each of those batches of Paroxetine active substance complied with specification prior to release. The decision to recall was taken by the company.

The Irish Medicines Board is investigating this matter. For reasons of confidentiality we cannot provide further information at this time.

The FDA have been investigating this issue for many months. They have published their findings and a strongly worded letter to GSK demanding answers and action and threatening sanctions. Why then is the IMB still investigating the matter and refusing to comment? Could it be that the actions of the Irish government are influenced more by the financial relationship it has with GSK than concerns for consumer safety? Could the IMB be compromised by conflicts of interest? Is the IMB a victim of regulatory capture? Should the IMB refuse to approve new GSK products as the FDA has threatened to do, what impact might that have on the Irish tax take and on Irish jobs? What impact might criticizing GSK have on the credibility of a government who has convinced the Irish public that the investment of millions of taxpayer dollars in the pharmaceutical industry is in their interests? Should any investigation being undertaken be focused on the IMB rather than GSK, given the FDA seem to have done the IMB’s job for it?

This is one small example of regulatory capture in one small country. Globally, I believe it is time to consider alternative models of pharmaceutical drug regulation. Government regulation has not, and cannot achieve the public safety goals of regulation.

There are numerous models of effective alternatives to government regulation run by independent third parties. Prof David Healy has shown us that a key regulatory function, pharmacovigilance, can be undertaken by an independent third party with a board of experts from a range of fields, consumers and patient advocates.

The WHO tells us that

Drug regulation is a societal function intended to protect the public. Traditionally it has been considered as a process involving two actors, the DRA and the regulated firms. But policies that foster such arrangements run the risk of encouraging corruption. In order to promote effective drug regulation, arrangements that foster the participation of independent third parties should therefore be considered. Since consumers are the end-users of drugs, all drug regulatory efforts should lead, ultimately, to protection of the consumer. Consumer groups or public interest groups can contribute to these efforts by participating both in the development of regulatory policies and in regulatory activities. They can act as independent attorney generals and protect the public from undue pressure from industry or politicians.

Whether a new model of regulation involves or is independent from government, it is my view that as a matter of urgency, sole responsibility for the regulation of the pharmaceutical company must be removed from its hands. Lives depend on it.

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Maria Bradshaw
DelusionNZ: Maria Bradshaw lost her only child to SSRI induced suicide in 2008. Co-founder and CEO of CASPER (Community Action on Suicide Prevention Education & Research), Maria promotes a social model of suicide prevention focused on strengthening community cohesion, addressing the social drivers of suicide and providing communities with the knowledge and tools required to reclaim suicide prevention from mental health professionals. Maria has an MBA from Auckland University and particular interests in sociological and indigenous models of suicide prevention, prescription drug induced suicide, pharmacovigilance and alternatives to psychiatric interventions for emotional distress. Maria has researched and written a number of papers challenging the medical model of suicide prevention.


  1. Maria:

    You are an inspiration to this weary mom. When I read this article I said to myself, “I can do more. I can do better for my child.” Knowing the heartache that you have endured and your willingness to convert heartache into community outreach, education, and action gives me hope and strength. We may not be able to turn the clock back and make our children’s suffering and our family’s suffering as if it had never happened, but somehow, someway with diligence and faith, we can expose this unholy alliance between public health, medicine and industry from harming future generations of children . My heartache sometimes revolves around the question, is the damage done by the institutionalization and forced medication of my child permanent and can I continue to live at peace if my daughter and our family never receives an apology or an acknowledgement of wrong doing from those who have harmed her? You have a big heart to convert heartbreak into peaceful action and I salute you!

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  2. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and that seems to be where we are. I happened across this link this evening, it doesn’t completely mesh with your blog, but does point out that even Andreasson was slow to confess to the ADRs of neuroleptic drugs:

    Collaboration between money only motivated governmental, educational, and corporate interests absolutely seems to result in adverse effects to society as a whole.

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  3. Maria, It seems that a natural companion piece to this great work of investigative reporting would be to see how this same Triple Threat (Gov. Academia,Pharma Corps.)(It is a cartel) ,in the USA, England,Ireland ,etc. at the same time as they promote dangerous drugs they also undermine the use of natural herbs in therapeutic potencies, also natural supplements in therapeutic potencies ,practitioners of natural therapies including Naturopathy, Homeopathy, Ayurvedic. Also impede the organic food industry . What are the names of the people globally most responsible and what are their goals and to what purpose ?Are they also connected to the agricultural pesticide and insecticide companies and Monsanto the wannabe GMO own all the seeds company. We need to name these people.
    I know here in the USA the FDA is as corrupt as hell and probably exposed wrong doers in Ireland to protect our very own pharmaceutical racketeers at home.
    For example Charlie Brown an attorney here in the USA has been trying to get a ban in the USA prohibiting the use of mercury and mercury compounds in dental fillings and vaccinations for something like 30 years. The real science is all with him . Here President Obama appointed as head of the FDA a former 10 year employe of Henry Schein a company that manufactures mercury dental amalgams. The FDA head refused to act even when court decisions were made against the mercury in peoples body industries. Corruption at every turn.

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  4. You’re addressing a very important problem in today’s medicine. The only thing I’d like to add is that the process of creating and approval of new drugs requires a similar if not more scrutiny. I may be willing to go as far as to say that drug companies should not be allowed to develop new drugs – that should be the role of independent research organisations. And certainly they should not be allowed to conduct or finance the clinical trials. To be honest I am not sure how to design a better system for the discovery of new drugs, some of which are so badly needed but letting the drug companies do that leads to bad science and harmful drugs. I don’t know, maybe the system where the companies would be only allowed to produce drugs but not to test new ones or advertise or promote them or even make “educational” campaigns would be better system? When the drugs would be developed in the public sector and only passed over to the companies to produce them, with patent right retained in the public domain, in return for a fraction of their profits which would support the budget? That would remove at least some of the incentives to manipulate the studies and hide negative results and toxicity. Also the follow-up studies for every new drug including comprehensive long-term evaluations of efficacy and side effects should be mandatory until the drug is proven to have a reasonable risk-to-benefit ratio. I think that the deconstruction of the current system is badly needed for any improvement to occur.

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  5. And the Financial Regulation Authorities have been captured by the Banks.

    It’s the way of large bodies devoted to making profit, they use some of the profit to influence the so called independent regulators – and the governments that set the regulators up and make up the regulations.

    I wonder if Big Pharma needs to be taken into public ownership?

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    • “I wonder if Big Pharma needs to be taken into public ownership?”
      YES. And it’s likely not the only industry that would benefit from that happening.
      Maybe the state ownership of everything is not the best solution but compared to the neoliberal world of corporations run amok some nationalisation would be awesome.

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  6. Knowing that it is important to use words correctly I recently looked up the word witch doctor. What a surprise to discover it precisely described the average psychiatrist: a magician in a savage tribe. Which then caused me to realize that these drugs are actually witches’ brew. Of course I should apologize to the witch doctors as they are generally sincere and often successful, and in many cases their witches brews are potent herbal concoctions. But these words came out of a particular white man’s burden view of so called primitive societies. But now it turns out that the superior societies were actually the primitive ones. Also I do not mean to call the contemporary patients of psychiatrists savages though they might feel that way after the drugs take hold or so I have been told and observed.

    So arrogance has had its day. Hopefully the sun will set on it before too long. We can no longer count on professional scientists as they can not decide whether the earth is cooling or warming, whether radiation is good for the person or harmful, whether psychiatric medication is helpful or not, whether GMO seeds produce good food or not, and so on. With such impotence as these scientist display it is best to rely on intuition as people once did and go our own way. It is really too bad as vast fortunes were spent on these folks only to produce men and women with a tendency to be drawn powerfully to the money handed out by the oligarchs. And truth and money do not mix well like driving and alcohol.

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    • As a scientist myself I think you should not be taking it out on scientists that much…;).
      Actually with the Earth heating up there is a consensus (global warming is happening and it’s man-made) and the fact that it look like there is no agreement it’s because there are paid talking heads in the media who are trying to make it look like that. I believe the term is “false controversy”. When it comes to radiation and GMO that’s a broader topic I could discuss but I don’t think here is the place for it.
      When it comes to drugs: most psychiatrists and doctors in general are not scientists. I have some experience working with the medical professionals and they have a completely different way of thinking that the standard scientist has. Not that it’s necessarily wrong or anything – their profession simply has different objectives. They are not supposed to look for an absolute truth – they are supposed to find the best possible practical solution. They also think in algorithms and lack a lot of basic knowledge about biology that could sometimes make their work better. Of course there are exceptions but generally science and medicine are not necessarily the same.
      As for the overlap between medicine and biological sciences: in cases of say animal models of disease, the doctors inform the scientists what the problems are and they also are the ones who perform the clinical trials and decide that the desirable outcome of the medicine should be. I did my PhD in neuroscience and I know how far we are from understanding the nervous system of an earth worm, let alone the human brain. When the psychiatry can’t even define what the pathology is really all about and what the “normal” looks like it’s really hard to do any meaningful studies. It’s quite easy to define some boundaries for normal when you’re dealing with blood sugar or hypertension but what is the normal level of anxiety?

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  7. Brilliant
    B, your above arguments blatantly remind me of
    Bad Industry badly needs regulations as not to proceed with Bad Pharma
    Bad Medicine, or better Bad Psychiatry, better stop blabbering about ‘Bad brains’
    Sorry I am on the B track here
    Bravely better psychiatrists should back up their knowledge on Brain Neurology
    Back away from Brain imbalance blabla based on nothing but Bad Science.
    For the better or just my brain brewery, I may be bewildered, but I am not even British.
    Bad bet or good, being curious as a bewitched social scientist be.
    In case this is a bad idea, back with complaints to me!

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