Big Pharma: Bad Science AND Bad Business

As promised, we’ve been hot on the trail of Big Pharma lately, passing along every bit of damning truth we can find. This Sunday’s LATimes carried an article we call an “essential read” for anyone who’s been following and cursing the industry’s exploitation of the American public.

The strategy that has made the pharmaceutical industry one of the wealthiest and most powerful on Earth is finally starting to betray it. Beginning in just a few weeks, and continuing over the next several years, some of the biggest-selling and most profitable drugs in history will lose their patent protection. …The real problem is that the industry’s scientists have hit a dry spell. They are not discovering enough new drugs to replace the aging standbys. Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved just 19 new medicines, according to preliminary data, the fewest since 1983. Lost in all the hand-wringing on Wall Street is a recognition of how the industry got itself into this fix in the first place. For 25 years, the drug industry has imitated the basic business model of Hollywood. Pharmaceutical executives, like movie moguls, have focused on creating blockbusters. …The strategy had a flaw that executives have long ignored: It required extraordinary amounts of promotion at the expense of scientific creativity. To make the strategy work, the drug industry put its marketers in charge; scientists were given a back seat. Is it any wonder that executives at many companies have watched their pipelines of new drugs slow to a trickle?

via LA Times

The article goes on to detail depraved and doomed business model of the Big Pharma execs, who the author notes are now much more likely to be former marketing gurus than M.D.s. Their “blockbuster” objective has not only diminished the role of scientists (and science!) within the companies, it’s pushed out the vision of developing drugs for truly life-threatening medical conditions (as opposed to common “symptoms”) in this country and abroad, such as malaria, which the article notes, “kills a child every 30 seconds.”

An article in The New Yorker last week highlighted the growth of “medical philanthropies” that devote their dollars to the development of treatments for medical conditions the pharmaceutical industry sees no financial motivation to invest in. The foundation leader profiled was none other than a former Big Pharma exec who set up her own medical philanthropy after developing myeloma, a form of cancer with relatively few treatment options and a grim prognosis. Is it too much to ask for these corporations to cure real diseases?

It’s no surprise to us that Big Pharma is headed for a big fall. The faster the better, we say. Their marketing ploys, which have preyed upon the fears and lack of medical knowledge (Do we all need to go to medical school now to protect ourselves?) in the general public are more than a greedy sham; they’re a crime. These companies don’t answer for the deaths associated with premature distribution and advertising of drugs, like Vioxx, that haven’t been thoroughly tested for longer term safety issues across a wide range of people. They don’t answer for the debilitating side effects of their happy commercial jingle drugs, side effects that many patients will live with for the rest of their lives. Come in with slightly “elevated” cholesterol levels and a couple years later (and many dollars poorer) be left with debilitating muscle pain. And those pesky little lawsuits? With multi-billion dollar profits every year, the payouts are momentary inconveniences, simple drops in the bucket.

For now, however, Big Pharma will continue its “blockbuster model.” As the article noted, Eli Lilly is now beginning the marketing initiative for its newly approved daily version of Cialis. And millions of Americans (in this case, men) will ask their doctor about it at their next appointments. Clearly, Big Pharma is going to suck this model dry, trodding along, eyeing the public in typical ravenous fashion. Follow the Pied Piper, ladies and gents, free trial offer included.

net efekt Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

PharmaGossip: Big Pharma Job Cuts En Masse

Pharma Marketing Blog: The Looming Patent Meltdown

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20 thoughts on “Big Pharma: Bad Science AND Bad Business”

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  1. Can’t you just stick to nutrition? You can keep your anti-capitalist liberal politics. I can get that everywhere else as the nation is literally drowning in it. Do I need to get that socialist crap here too?

  2. You know what, Madmax? I think you’d have a point if the pursuit of profit actually led the pharmaceutical companies to develop more lifesaving drugs. The point that the L.A. Times article makes is that they are so concerned with short-term profit that they are not actually developing any new drugs. They’re spending all their money trying to get people to take more of the old drugs.

  3. Good post Mark. But I guess, at least according to Max, it’s anti-American to request that Big Pharma have a little honesty in their business dealings….especially since so many people can be harmed or killed by their products!! Keep up the postings Mark, most of us appreciate them!

  4. It’s not even about honesty, it’s about having a sustainable business model, which I should think any capitalist would want from publicly traded companies.

  5. I like your website and appreciate most of the information I get here, but considering I am much more versed in the science of Vioxx than you possibly could be, statements regarding deaths from its premature distribution give me pause regarding the rest of your knowledge base. Regurgitating Plaintiff talking points to your readers doesn’t cast you in a favorable light, and I personally would much appreciate you sticking to the things you are an expert on. To definitively state that Vioxx causes death is a huge stretch, and very likely many people are suffering today and without Vioxx because of irresponsible Plaintiff’s lawyers.

    1. No it is pretty well excepted that Merc knew it was unsafe when they released it.The low estimate is 50,000 deaths. I was working in a hospital pharmacy when they were promoting it for off label uses. Of course it was 100 times the cost of traditional NSAID s.

  6. I say keep these types of articles coming Mark! I find them very informative and they have a whole lot to do with health, especially considering that $$$ come before our actual health when it comes to these companies.

  7. David-

    The Vioxx issue was brought up in the article itself. This is the LATimes’ note about the author:

    “Melody Petersen covered the drug industry for the New York Times from 1999 to 2003, and is the author of “Our Daily Meds,” which will be published in March.”

    Though she inevitably has her personal perspective, I’d hardly say she’s ignorant about the practices and lawsuits of the pharmaceutical industry.

  8. Cox 2 inhibitors like Vioxx, Celebrex, Aleve as well as all other non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs deplete the user of B vitamins – particularly Folic Acid – and vitamin C and in the process actually increase the need for these nutritional factors.

    The statin drugs (Lipitor, Crestor, and Baycol (the last withdrawn) deplete the body of Co Enzyme Q10 leading to muscle wasting and heart failure. Beta blockers, some anti depressants (tri-cyclic and anti diabetic drugs also deplete the body of this essential enzyme. Often I see individuals who are actually on all of these and their MD does not have a clue.

    Unfortunately, many MD’s tell their patients to not waste their money on vitamins since they just make expensive urine. Perhaps there would have been less of a problem with some of these drugs had MD’s advised their patients that nutritional support with a good quality multiple vitamin and mineral and vitamin C and – if on any or all of the Co Q 10 antagonists – taking a high potency Co CO 10 supplement was a good idea to compensate.

  9. I agree with David here. Overall, there is a lot of useful information here. Regarding Pharma business, you are clueless. When you or your family member is ill, how exactly do you think the drugs you are prescribed find their way to the market? Or, do you eschew medical care altogether? Judging by the tone of your article, I’m assuming you elect to brave your disease alone and do not need the medicinal care from “Big Pharma”.
    What you fail to realize is that for every one drug approved by the FDA, the drug company likely lost millions (if not billions) in developing compounds that failed to make it to market.

    Do a little research on costs and regulations associated with clinical trials before you make broad sweeping (untrue) statements about the pharmaceutical industry. Likewise, realize your hypocritical stance the next time you or your family member needs medical care for a disease.

  10. Chris: Don’t feel too sorry for the drug companies. They spend a greater portion of their income on marketing products, ‘educating’ doctors with, gifts, free golf weekends and all expense paid seminars to exotic places, pressuring regulators and influencing politicians with generous election donations than they spend on research and development for new drugs.

    It is not for nothing that the top ten earners of the Dow Jones 500 are drug companies.

    Glaxco paid one dollar for the rights to AZT, an anti-metabolite and failed anti-cancer drug (too toxic). For several years Glaxco was charging up to $10,000 a year per HIV patient – even though AZT was killing patients faster than than any virus it might smash since, unlike the patients, viruses do not have a metabolism to poison.

  11. As a RN for over 30 years I have personally seen hundreds of people literally saved from death and/or disability thanks to many drugs available to treat real illnesses.

    I have also seen people permanently damaged and even killed from drugs….frequently drugs that shouldn’t have been prescribed in the first place.

    Don’t cry for the drug companies….if they saved the $$ spent on marketing – direct marketing to the consumer as well as marketing to physicians under the guise of “education” – they wouldn’t be in such a state that they are in now.

    The problem, pure and simple, has been greed. Big Pharma has taken symptoms and created diseases and then they saturate the airwaves with dire warnings about what will happen if you don’t take their drugs.

    Yes, there ARE some fantastic drugs out there….and there are also some completely useless drugs…drugs that at minimum do nothing….and at worse permanently damage or even kill people. And even worse, for the most part the pharmaceutical companies were fully aware that there was a danger with their drugs, but did NOTHING to prevent that danger!

  12. Chris and David,

    For sure, there are a few drugs out there that have saved lives. I’m not disputing that. The problem is that most of the drugs developed and marketed by Big Pharma (the ones that collectively account for over 80% of the revenues) are lifestyle drugs that are unnecessary for the majority of people for whom they are prescribed. In many cases, the NNT (number needed to treat in order to save one person) is in the hundreds and the costs to society in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per life saved. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: in my opinion, statin drugs are the single biggest medical hoax ever perpetrated on the American public. Antipsychotics and antidepressants are close second, given out like candy whenever a patient asks (because they saw on TV that shyness is a disease). Type 2 diabetics are led to believe they they can’t live without their oral hypoglycemics (instead of simply cutting carbs and exercising). Anyone with any joint or muscle pain reaches for the Cox 2inhibitors (to mask symptons) first as opposed to looking at diet and other causation factors. Erectyle disfunction meds have become recreational drugs. We have created a drug-based treatment paradigm and we are on a very slippery slope if we continue.

    I am quite aware of the costs associated with bringing a new drug to market and doing clinical trials. And, by the way, those costs are extremely inflated as reported by the drug companies. It’s their obscene marketing costs that get passed on to the consumer that I object to. That and the creation of new diseases to fit the new “discoveries” (restless leg, anyone?)

    I am as pro-business as anyone could ever be. I am for keeping government out of my life. But I am also not going to be kicked around by a broken medical system that perpetuates itself by convincing an uneducated public that they can’t live without their drugs. If the FDA won’t say anything, who will? THat’s why we write about it here. Someone has to initiate a serious discussion. Thanks for your comments and participation here.

  13. What happened to the forum? Mark, I ask that you please not erase this and respond to one simple point. You ran a piece here about how glyconutrients are a scam/bogus etc. I don’t disagree with this but then explain to me how you are comfortable doing business with Doug Kaufmann who had a sponsor at one time trying to sell this worthless crap to the viewers. The “alternative/natural” medicine people are just as guilty of telling half-truths as the pharmaceutical companies.

  14. Jerry,

    This is the new forum. As we explained last week, the old one just wasn’t getting much traffic and, since this comments section was where the action was taking place, we decided to focus our attention here.

    Your point about the “alternative/natural” medicine people is spot on. I agree that my industry is also fraught with too many people scamming and telling half-truths. Unfortunately, it’s also difficult to weed out the good from the bad here as well. When my friend Doug accepted ads from glyconutrients people, I told him I was not thrilled and that it would cut into his credibility. Doug depends on sponsor dollars to be able to air his show. It’s tough to find good advertisers who want to support an alternative show. On balance, he offers good advice and certainly some “interesting points of view”. I don’t agree with some of what he says or his guests say, but his is still the best health talk show on television and it’s one of the few areas I can educate the public on my own views. To his credit, he did eventually pull the ads on glyconutrients when he saw the evidence. He also pulled ads for “foot detox baths” after he reviewed the evidence. We are working together to try to find that balance between sponsor dollars and good credible products. It’s not easy.

    It’s tough for me to find a platform to educate and legitimately sell my products. The FDA won’t let me say much about their effectiveness, so I have to talk about how the body works and what nutrients support those functions. In the end, your understanding of how things work makes it easier for you and others to see how drugs might “interfere, block or circumvent” normal healing processes, but how some specific alternative methods might “support” normal and healthy structure and function.

  15. Enjoy the blog and your thoughts on these issues as well. I have to say though that I feel getting rid of the forum was a bad decision. The only reason traffic there died was because you guys allowed internet bots to take over. I run a forum of my own that I’ve had about 4 years now, same software that you used for yours, never had a spam problem. Reason is because I nipped it in the bud from day one, and it doesn’t take me sitting at the computer 24/7 either, sometimes I go a few days without logging in and there are never any problems. You pretty much let the bots win and that’s rather disappointing. Keep up the good work with the blog though, if people don’t like reading about your articles such as these they don’t have to read them. I think they add great value to your blog overall.

  16. Hi Everyone,

    I would like to ask that people be respectful of others in this comments area. You can make your point without being insulting. When you make a point aggressively, it polarizes people instead of convincing them.

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