FOR decades, pharmaceutical firms have played a vital role in supplying drugs and medicines to the NHS.

However, the relationship is not a one way street. While 'big pharma' helps patients with cancer, heart diseases and other health problems, the taxpayer helps top up the profits of these multi-national giants.

Politicians must be vigilant about the links between pharma and the NHS. As today's revelations show, MSPs could be asking tougher questions of health service bodies like the Scottish Medicines Consortium.

Loading article content

The SMC, which advises NHS boards on new drugs, has to be fully independendent of the industry. The facts suggest there is a perception problem. Of the 600-plus individuals linked to the consortium, nearly 50% have declared links to the industry. The majority of these people are doctors. The wall that should separate pharma from the SMC has either never existed or has collapsed.

To its credit, the BMA in Scotland backs a workable transparency measure. It has argued for a register listing the financial interests health professionals have with the industry. We would go further: no-one with a recent financial interest in pharma should be allowed to sit on the SMC.

The industry tactic of funding patient and campaign groups is another concern. To be clear, patients who have been denied medicines by an uncaring bureaucracy must have a voice in the corridors of power.

However, pharma companies funding campaign groups, which back the drugs distributed by the same firms, is not something to be encouraged. If big pharma wants to campaign for a new medicine, it should do so itself.

The links between health firms and Holyrood should also make MSPs pause for reflection. Cross-party groups play an important role in bringing politicians and external bodies together, but the boundaries should be clearly drawn. The practice of commercial entitles providing funding to cross-party groups should be restricted, if not phased out entirely. It is only right pharmaceuticals should have a voice in in NHS, but that should not be louder than anyone else's.