May 16, 2008
Pharmaceutical companies were given a stern reprimand on May 8th in a hearing before U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce investigative panel. Rep. Bart Stupak, Democrat of Michigan, criticized what he considers misleading television commercials and suggested that Congress should consider restricting direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising to protect consumers.
DTC advertising is a method Melody Petersen knows well. In her newest book, OUR DAILY MEDS: HOW THE PHARMACEUTICAL COMPANIES TRANSFORMED THEMSELVES INTO SLICK MARKETING MACHINES AND HOOKED THE NATION ON PRESCRIPTION DRUGS, she describes drugmakers as an industry whose core drive is profit, and one that has insinuated itself, through money, into every level of drug research.
It is a view she came to gradually, reporting for four years on the pharmaceutical companies for THE NEW YORK TIMES. As she tells Bill Moyers:
I actually thought that they were a lot about science. That's what they tell the public. They are all about science and discovering new drugs. But as I started to follow their daily activities and talk to executives, I learned that really it was marketing that drove them.
According to Petersen, the rewards have been large. America has become the top consumer of prescription drugs in the world, with nearly 65% of the population on physician-prescribed medication. In 2005, Americans spent $250 billion dollars on such drugs. This consumption made pharmaceuticals the most profitable business sector in America from 1995-2002.
>>Read a brief history of drug advertising.
Petersen argues in OUR DAILY MEDS that drugmakers have, for the most part, not plowed these profits back into life-saving drugs, but rather into influencing the science of medicine:
With their hoards of cash, the companies have readily handed money to patient groups, hospitals, universities, medical schools, physician societies, government agencies, and just about any organization they want on their side. [...] The industry's cash-filled coffers have given it a stranglehold on medical science.
The problem, according to Petersen, is not that medicine is bad, it's that the drug industry has lost its way.
We've come to a time when decisions on how to treat a disease have as great a chance of being hatched in a corporate marketing department as by a group of independent doctors working to improve the public's health. In too many, cases, whether a medicine helps or harms a patient has become secondary to how much it will bring shareholders in profits.
>>Learn how to be drug smart
Melody PetersenMelody Petersen wrote about the pharmaceutical industry for four years as a reporter for THE NEW YORK TIMES. She won a Gerald Loeb Award in 1997, one of the highest awards for business journalism.
Published May 16, 2008.
Guest photo by Robin Holland