When it comes to legislation affecting medical products, industry money is often flowing just beneath the surface of the policy discussion—if not in plain view.
The overhaul of over-the-counter drug regulation inserted in Congress’s $2 trillion coronavirus relief package—see accompanying story—was a case in point.
Members of Congress typically get financial support from industries over which they have direct power. As the top members of the Senate health committee and backers of the legislation, Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) fit the pattern.
According to a breakdown by OpenSecrets.org, during the 2018 election cycle, the “Pharmaceuticals/Health Products” industry led the list of industry contributors for Alexander, with contributions to his campaign committee and leadership PAC totaling $850,230.
According to OpenSecrets.org, during the same election cycle, the “Pharmaceuticals/Health Products” industry contributed $811,292 to Murray’s campaign committee and leadership PAC, or political action committee.
In an email to POGO, an aide to Murray pointed to a June 2019 letter “supporting OTC reform” signed by “leading public health organizations.”
So-called over-the-counter or OTC drugs are sold without a prescription. The letter endorsed a bill to fund the FDA’s oversight of over-the-counter drugs with fees paid by companies that make the products and to streamline FDA decision-making about OTCs—steps Congress took in March 2020 when it passed the coronavirus relief package known as the CARES Act.
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“Without action on this legislation, FDA will miss out on new resources necessary for timely review and the agency will be forced to continue working under an inefficient regulatory framework that simply cannot keep up with today’s science,” the 2019 letter to members of Congress said.
Supporters included the Pew Charitable Trusts. “This law is a leap forward in over-the-counter drug oversight,” Liz Richardson, Pew’s project director for health care products, said in an email to POGO. “That’s why these reforms are supported by Pew and other public health and consumer safety organizations.”
Pew has not received any funding from makers of over-the-counter products, Richardson told POGO. But the same cannot be said for all of the organizations that signed the letter.
They included the Public Access to SunScreens Coalition; the American Academy of Pediatrics; and the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
The Public Access to SunScreens Coalition has described itself as “an alliance of public health organizations, physician groups, sunscreen manufacturers and concerned citizens.” Among the charter members it has listed on its website are
- Johnson & Johnson Consumer, maker of Tylenol and other drugstore products;
- L’Oréal, which makes cosmetics and sunscreens;
- Edgewell Personal Care, maker of Banana Boat and Hawaiian Tropic brands;
- DeWolf Chemical, Inc., which distributes sunscreen ingredients to manufacturers of consumer products; and
- McCullough & Associates, a chemical maker
(L'Oréal appeared on the list as recently as March but has since disappeared from it.)
The Public Access to SunScreens (PASS) Coalition also counts as charter members the Prevent Cancer Foundation, which is supported by pharmaceutical companies; the Melanoma Research Alliance, which lists many “Corporate Allies” on its website; and the Skin Cancer Foundation, whose corporate council includes a list of companies in the “Sunscreens & Cosmetics” businesses.
POGO sent questions to those organizations but did not hear back.
The PASS Coalition also lists as a charter member Dr. Harry Fallick. The list doesn’t mention that Fallick is the founder of TIZO, a brand of sunscreens and other skincare products.
When the PASS Coalition issued a news release applauding Congress for including the over-the-counter drug provisions in the coronavirus relief bill, the contact given on the release was a lobbyist at the law firm Holland & Knight.
The American Academy of Pediatrics is a pediatricians’ organization, but it has corporate connections.
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In an email to POGO, an aide to Murray sent a quote from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and said the group “approved this quote specifically for use in your story.” In the quote, Mark Del Monte, chief executive officer of the group, commended Alexander, Murray, and other lawmakers “for their commitment to getting this longstanding priority across the finish line.”
“The CARES Act at last gives FDA the authority to safeguard public health; children will be much better off as a result,” Del Monte added.
The American Academy of Pediatrics lists corporate relationships with companies such as Johnson & Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline. The organization lists in its “President's Circle”—“$50,000 and above”—Pampers, which is part of Procter & Gamble, maker of Pepto-Bismol and other drugstore products.
On its website, on a page titled “Corporate and Organizational Partners,” the American Academy of Pediatrics thanks those and other companies “for their support of the Friends of Children Fund.”
“Through an annual membership contribution to the Fund, these companies are invited to a Corporate Summit held each summer at the AAP National Headquarters in Itasca, IL,” the page says.
In response to an email from POGO, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, Jamie Poslosky, confirmed the quote that the Murray aide had provided. The spokesperson did not answer follow-up questions about the organization’s corporate relationships.
The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology is also a medical professionals’ group. In an unsigned email to POGO, the academy said its “advocacy process is wholly independent, and not subject to influence by the corporate sponsors of our educational programs.”
The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology lists corporate funders such as Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline.
Sanofi’s over-the-counter products include Rolaids, Selsun Blue, Aspercreme, and Dulcolax.