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[MONTREAL] Science journalists have accused drug companies of issuing misleading information to inflate perceptions of disease threats and maximise profits from drug sales, and have called for greater journalistic scrutiny of the companies' activities.

Speaking at the 4th World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ) today (5 October), freelance journalist and author Ray Moynihan warned that journalists risk being used as promotional tools. Instead, said Moynihan, journalists should be reporting on the pharmaceutical companies' tactics.

But the conference also heard that for many science journalists in developing countries, big companies are an important source of access to the stories they cover — whether they accept the companies' public relations material or not.

Reading examples of text from press releases issued by major pharmaceutical companies, Moynihan said the information issued can be "grossly misleading", intended to elevate public perceptions of risk without having a scientific basis to do so.

"The marketing of illness is the story of our times," said Moynihan. "[Journalists should] be used less, and report more on these strategies."

At the same meeting, Pauline Dakin, a radio health journalist, echoed Moynihan's concerns and described the checklist of questions she asks when reporting on drug developments.

Dakin stressed to fellow journalists the importance of assessing the need for a drug before reporting on it. She highlighted 'cure', 'dramatic' and 'breakthrough' as words journalists should be especially wary of in drug company press releases.

Moynihan told SciDev.Net that there is a need for research into the tactics drug companies use for media relations in developing countries.

"I suspect the growing middle class elites are being targeted in the same way in developing countries," Moynihan told SciDev.Net.

Tamar Kahn, a science journalist from the South African newspaper Business Day and SciDev.Net correspondent, highlighted the dilemma facing journalists in developing countries whose employers have limited budgets for travel.

Kahn described how companies involved in mining or genetically modified crops offer journalists paid trips to report on their activities. "If we say no, we stay in the office," said Kahn. "If yes, are we complicit? Should we admit it?"

Moynihan was adamant. "It's time we should say no to those trips," he said.

"We see billions spent on a product with negligible benefits for health, when those billions could be invested in products from the South," said Moynihan. "That's the opportunity cost of marketing disease."

The meeting heard calls for the WCSJ to develop a code of conduct for reporting on drugs. Jens Degett of the European Science Foundation said he formerly spent four years in the 'spin section' of a multinational drug company and thought  "guidelines would be very healthy".

A member of the WCSJ fundraising committee confirmed that companies including GlaxoSmithKline and Merck Frosst Canada had helped fund the event, but that their contribution amounted to "small dollars".

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