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Health minister Falcon comfortable with drug advisor's new role with Pfizer

That a consultant moved from advising the British Columbia government on drug policy to a position with the world's largest drug company is of no concern, said B.C. health minister Kevin Falcon.

“I don't know the details of the job or what have you,” said Falcon. “I just know that Don Avison has a pretty good reputation.”

The Tyee reported earlier this week that Avison was appointed as the Canadian representative on Pfizer Inc.'s international advisory board. He previously chaired a pharmaceutical task force for the B.C. government that last year delivered a report that critics said pandered to the interests of the brand-name drug companies.

“If someone's speculating that as a result of the task force he's now taken a position that he's going to receive a personal benefit out of as a result of work he did, I don't think that would be fair based on my assessment of Don and his many years of public service,” Falcon said.

“He did a good job, very good job in fact, as chair of the pharmaceutical task force. The fact he's now been asked to sit on an international advisory board, I don't have any discomfort with that.”

Conflict of interest provisions for politicians would not apply in this case, said New Democratic Party health critic Adrian Dix. “Clearly it shows the rules for politicians are much tougher than for policy makers.”

The pharmaceutical task force process was already so tainted that Avison's appointment adds insignificantly to the stench, he said. The panel included various people with ties to the drug industry, including its chief lobbyist in Canada, Russell Williams, the president of Canada's Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies (Rx&D).

“The fix was in from the beginning,” said Dix. “I'm more critical of Mr. Avison accepting the role of chair under those circumstances than I am of him accepting the role with Pfizer after the fact.”

Health policy researcher and author Alan Cassels said the appointment is troubling. “Is this international advisory position payback for what he delivered in the task force report? Because that's what it looks like.”

News of the appointment came on a day when the federal New Democratic Party was raising concerns about the appointment of Bernard Prigent, vice-president and medical director of Pfizer Canada, to a position on the board of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the body that oversees the awarding of grants for medical research.

Health critic Judy Wasylycia-Leis from Winnipeg North asked health minister Leona Aglukkaq to reverse the appointment. “Having drug companies advise the government is like having the big bad wolf advising the three little pigs on how to build their homes,” she said.

“This is puncturing the people's defenses one by one,” said Cassels, the author of Selling Sickness. “They have the interests of their shareholders at heart, and we're not all shareholders.”

Avison said in an e-mail that fellow board members include United States senator Chuck Hagel, former Australian Liberal Party leader Brendan Nelson and former European Union president Pat Cox.

He did not respond to a second e-mail asking how much the position pays and what he would say to those who say it taints his B.C. task force work.

A Pfizer spokesperson in Canada declined to say how much the new board's 10 members will be paid. “Pfizer and the Advisory Board members have entered into a consultancy agreement,” said Julie-Catherine Racine in an e-mail. “The agreement between the parties complies with all relevant laws and regulations governing such arrangements.”

Avison and the board will advise Pfizer on “international public affairs and policy inititatives,” she said. “The advisory Board evolved from a growing recognition of similarities across health systems and a desire to increase our understanding of how we can contribute to delivering innovative healthcare solutions.”

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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