When Holford was shown to have failed to declare a competing interest in one of his BMJ rapid responses, Holford protested that:
The rules on conflicts of interest in the BMJ were formulated specifically to deal with the blatant distortion of data engaged in by some researchers writing up drug trials, which do involve patented products and which are also supported by hundreds of millions of pounds of marketing. The amount I earn from vitamin sales would barely support the lifestyle of a single drug rep. I rather feel we are comparing pea shooters with pump action shotguns here…I [do] benefit – modestly – from supplement sales.
I was therefore interested to read that
NeutraHealth has acquired the entire issued share capital of Health Products for Life Limited (“HPL”), a vitamins and supplements website endorsed by Patrick Holford that sells product direct to consumers…The company believes that the website portal can be developed to significantly increase sales and provide a solid platform for roll out of mail order orientated products. The total consideration for HPL of #464,000, net of cash and including deferred consideration, represents an acquisition multiple of 7.7 x PBIT for the year ending 30 June 2007 (unaudited).
£464,00 (albeit some of it deferred, and perhaps with strings attached) isn’t what I’d call modest. If I took even £4,640 from the pharmaceutical or nutritional supplement industry – in order to fund Holford Watch – many would complain that we were in the pay of ‘big pharma’. I certainly wouldn’t call £460,000 a modest amount.
The fact that this payment reportedly represents an “acquisition multiple of 7.7 x PBIT for the year ending 30 June 2007 (unaudited)” would mean that Health Products for Life was – before tax and interest – generating over £60,000/year in profit. This also isn’t what I’d call modest, and I’d assume that many drug reps earn rather less.
A final point, which just strikes me as rather unstylish on Holford’s behalf. In a BMJ rapid response, Holford asserts that
I notice that Professor David Colquhoun has so far not felt it relevant to mention his own competing interests and financial involvements with the pharmaceutical industry when knocking non-drug approaches to diseases. I assume that in the future he will also want to be forthright and state his own interests.
However, as Colquhoun states, his
research has never been funded by the drug industry, but always by the Medical Research Council or by the Wellcome Trust. Neither have I accepted hospitality or travel to conferences from them. That is because I would never want to run the risk of judgements being clouded by money. The only time I have ever taken money from industry is in the form of modest fees that I got for giving a series of lectures on the basic mathematical principles of drug-receptor interaction, a few years ago.
I have not seen Holford apologise for this unjustified slur on Colquhoun’s reputation. That would be bad enough in itself but – given recent reports of Holford’s rather more than modest commercial interest in supplement sales – this now looks even more unpleasant.
Holford accused Colquhoun of taking money from big pharma – while Colquhoun has actually chosen not to take such funding because he did not want to “risk [his] judgements being clouded by money”. At the time he made the accusation, Holford himself had substantial commercial interests in the sales of nutritional supplements – and, with the recent reports about Health Products for Life, we’re only now getting a sense of how much money might have been involved in just one of Holford’s numerous commercial interests in the international nutritional supplement industry.
This isn’t a case of plucky nutritionists fighting the evils of big pharma – instead, we saw someone with commercial interests in the nutritional supplement industry both failing to declare these interests in a BMJ submission, and then making unjustified attacks on the reputation of an independent university professor.