Big Pharma is in danger of joining Big Oil and Big Tobacco as one
of the bad boys of American industry. A slew of revelations have
stung drugmakers in recent months - from charges of hiding
unflattering clinical trials to studies showing a link between the
use of antidepressants in children and suicidal thoughts. The
companies' stance against allowing Americans to buy cheaper drugs in
Canada has further eroded public support.
Now, a steady stream of critical books - with titles such as "On
The Take" and "The $800 Million Pill" - lambastes the way the
companies do business.
"It's obviously frustrating," says Jeff Trewhitt, a spokesman for
the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA),
the industry trade group. "We think it's the result of a barrage of
distorted allegations, and we are trying to fight back." The charges
have "obscured the fact that the US pharmaceutical and biotechnology
research industry is the most innovative ... in the world," he says,
supplying 60 to 70 percent of the world's new medicines.
Nevertheless, the charges keep coming. In June, New York's
attorney general sued GlaxoSmithKline for, among other things,
suppressing clinical findings that its antidepressant drug was
ineffective in children and teens and possibly could cause suicidal
behavior. The drug industry has since announced it will establish a
voluntary database of clinical studies. But some in Congress, as
well as the American Medical Association and medical journal
editors, are calling for a mandatory registry that would make public
all clinical trials, even the ones where the drugs failed to work.
Then last week, advisory panels to the federal Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) urged the strongest possible warnings on the
use of antidepressants in children.
What's more, the current publicity about antidepressants "almost
certainly" will lead to more lawsuits against drug manufacturers,
says Richard Daynard, an expert in product liability and consumer
protection who teaches at Northeastern University in Boston. People
will say "these guys did know [about the problems]. They should have
told me," Professor Daynard says.
The drumbeat of revelations has damaged the industry's
credibility. A majority of Americans (55 percent) now think drug
companies should be more closely regulated and two-thirds of
Americans say drug prices are unreasonably high, according to Harris
polls this year. Most significantly, only 44 percent say
pharmaceutical companies serve their customers well. That's down 35
percentage points since 1997, the biggest drop in approval among any
of the 15 industries the poll tracks. Only four industries - health
insurance (36 percent), oil (32 percent), managed care or HMOs (30
percent), and tobacco (30 percent) - now rank lower.
Big Pharma is not the first industry to enter the doghouse of
American public opinion. The 1970s gasoline shortages and the
infamous 1989 spill from the oil tanker Exxon Valdez off the Alaskan
coast have made Big Oil a longtime member of the bad boys club.
Big Tobacco has an even longer history, although many Americans
assume it got its comeuppance in 1998 when US state attorneys
general won a gigantic $206 billion settlement against