The Worrying Conflicts-of-Interest Behind Drug Free Kids Canada and Its Information on the Opioid Crisis

  • National Newswatch

If you've been watching Canadian television or listening to the radio lately, you've probably noticed Drug Free Kids Canada's (DFKC) advertisements. The majority of them encourage parents to have candid conversations with their children about drugs and to learn the facts. They then encourage viewers to visit is plenty to applaud about these advertisements. The examples of parents' worries in the videos include that the parents themselves had used drugs in their youth and that they're uncomfortable bringing up the subject. These are realistic concerns. On the website itself, the organization provides resources to parents for talking with kids, encourages avoiding condescending and disparaging language, and provides information on the specifics of a range of substances. DFKC has enlisted a number of advertising agencies to work pro bono on public service announcements and public education campaigns. This is all to be applauded.Yet a closer look at the organization's funding should raise some serious concerns around conflicts-of-interest. Its principal corporate donors include Innovative Medicines Canada (the main representative of the Canadian pharmaceutical industry), the Health Products Stewardship Association (another organization representing the pharmaceutical industry, which advocates for the safe disposal of unwanted medications and used sharps), and Purdue Pharma (disclosed by Purdue Pharma in a separate letter to Health Canada, but not advertised on DFCK's website).Why is this relevant? By most accounts, the opioid crisis is overwhelmingly the most serious drug crisis in North America. More than 20 people die every day in Canada from an apparent opioid toxicity death. Experts overwhelmingly agree that the roots of this crisis were the pharmaceutical industry's deliberate strategies, including a concerted marketing campaign by industry representatives to push opioids to physicians, false claims about opioids' potential for addiction, sponsoring “thought leaders” and non-profit organizations that encouraged the use of opioids, and pressure by the industry on regulators to avoid restrictions. Yet DFKC makes no mention of this. Instead, DFKC's information on the opioid crisis attributes the crisis to overprescribing, “an initial misunderstanding” of the addictive risk of prescription opioids, and the diversion of prescription opioids into the illegal drug market. Nowhere is industry mentioned.This absence of information is not a coincidence. Since evidence of the industry's poor practices emerged, it has spent millions of dollars to downplay its role in the crisis and encourage a focus on individual users instead. This is part of a broader effort to emphasize “downstream” strategies, rather than “upstream” prevention interventions, such as pharmaceutical industry reform.This makes DFKC the perfect campaign for the pharmaceutical industry to support: it provides industry with a tax-deductible donation that simultaneously improves their public image and provides industry-friendly messaging. All this comes as the Innovative Medicines Canada pushes for more deregulation, rather than an increased scrutiny on industry practices coming out of the pharmaceutical opioid crisis.Research has repeatedly shown that funding impacts non-profits' focus. There is much that DFKC does well, but it should not be trusted to provide a proper account of a crisis that its own donors caused.Daniel Eisenkraft Klein is a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health.