Now that I’ve been accused of being a shill for Big Pharma (hee! I’ve made it as a blogger!), it’s probably time for me to do the post I’ve been intending for a while. I want to describe some of the real problems with the pharmaceutical industry that aren’t being discussed while anti-vaccine advocates are accusing Big Pharma of selling toxic vaccines.
Marketing to Doctors
Pens. Pads of paper. Free samples, Dinners. Trips. All of these things are provided to doctors in an attempt to influence their prescribing habits.
Drug reps come to your doctor’s office and give them lunch while telling them about the wonders of the latest and greatest from their company. (Did you know they hire ex-cheerleaders for this job? I’m not kidding.) You can always tell the drug reps by their short skirts, bag of tricks, and perky demeanor.
Even the most conscientious doctor can’t help but be slightly subliminally influenced by an office full of objects with a particular drug name on them. And when you’re a busy doctor without enough time to read the most recent studies, I can understand the temptation to go for the latest and greatest, especially when drug companies are also…
Marketing to Patients
If I were to name one major mistake made in relation to the pharmaceutical industry, I think it would be the government allowing direct marketing to patients. Sure, companies are required to throw a few descriptions of side effects into those slick ads describing their new product, but that’s not nearly enough.
The average consumer just doesn’t have enough knowledge to determine whether the newest and hottest cholesterol-lowering drug is actually any better than that super-cheap statin she’s been using for 5 years. (Heck, sometimes doctors don’t either!)
And those busy doctors I mentioned in the last section only get a few minutes with each patient, leaving them not nearly enough time to explain why that super-cheap statin is superior. It’s easier to just give in and prescribe the fancy new drug and move on. After all, the new drug won’t hurt the patient, so why argue about it?
Patents and New Formulations
Oh look, BristolMyersSquibMuggleWizard has come out with a new formulation of their blockbuster drug Moneysteal! It’s new Moneysteal Extended Release! Obviously it must be a better drug than old Moneysteal, which you can get in generic form, right?
Yeah, not so much. I mean, I’m sure that sometimes it is, but a lot of times that “new” formulation is something the company has been sitting on until it was time for their patent on the drug to expire. (My understanding is that a drug patent lasts 20 years after the drug is invented.) But drug companies claim that because the testing and approval process takes so long, they don’t have enough time to make money off the drug they’ve developed before the patent expires and other companies can jump in and start making it as well.
One of the tricks they use (and I’m sure there are plenty others I don’t know about) is that new formulation. If they can convince consumers and/or doctors that the new formulation is better or safer or has fewer side effects, they can keep selling their more expensive brand name drug instead of being defeated by the makers of generics.
I have no doubts that some drug company employees have been stupid and greedy enough to lie and try to hide studies that show hidden dangers in their product. We’ve seen it happen. I do tend to be skeptical of conspiracies, though, because it’s so difficult for people to keep secrets even in small groups, let alone large corporations!
But here’s the thing: The system catches those dangerous products! Because doctors and patients and public health officials are watching and monitoring and when they see a pattern they act. And drugs get pulled off the market.
In fact, my mother would argue that they’re overeager and sometimes they pull things off that they shouldn’t. She still misses the diabetes drug Rezulin. And it turns out that Vioxx—the drug always mentioned when people talk about hidden dangers in products—is only dangerous to some patients, while others could be getting good pain relief with fewer side effects. But I digress.
My point here is that I don’t think pharmaceutical companies are beneficent deities. They’re no better and no worse than other American corporations that mainly exist to make money for their investors. They make mistakes, they screw up, and they need to be reined in by the government.
They’re also not 100% soul-sucking evil. They’re filled with employees who are there to get a paycheck, employees who really want to make people healthier, employees who don’t give a damn, employees who are happy to have fulfilling work…etc. and so on. Y’know, like any other organization.
Pharmaceutical companies are not the enemy and they’re not evil, but the government must keep an eye on them, because their screwups have the potential to do a lot of damage. The FDA needs funding and the power to do some real damage to companies that go out of bounds. Drug marketing to patients and doctors should be severely curtailed, if not eliminated. The question of patent length needs to be examined closely.
And in the meantime…let’s keep vaccinating our kids, okay?