Big Pharma has a problem. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Drug Makers are Having Trouble Improving Their Reputations.” A new survey shows that drug companies are not perceived as outstanding in innovation, performance, leadership or other important corporate attributes.

The gist of the report could be summed up with the playground ditty, “Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, guess I’ll go eat worms.”

What Happened to Big Pharma?

Once upon a time the pharmaceutical industry was highly admired by the American public. Its products were referred to as “ethical” drugs. Innovation and fair pricing were the keystones of the business.

In the mid 1970s some of the best selling drugs were penicillin G and tetracycline with an average prescription price under $5, thyroid at $1.25 and insulin at under $2. A prescription (it was only available by prescription at that time) for 100 Benadryl Kapseals averaged $4.

The Astronomical Price of Prescriptions

Those days are long gone. Most people feel that the prices of new medications are outrageous. The hepatitis C drug Sovaldi is effective but at $1,000 a day, it is unaffordable if someone doesn’t have very good insurance. A 12-week course of treatment could cost over $80,000.

Then there’s Keytruda. It shows real promise against metastatic melanoma, but at $150,000 a year, it could break the bank.

Drug Ads on Television

Cost is not the only problem for the pharmaceutical industry’s lackluster image. Direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising may be driving sales but it annoys physicians and pharmacists as well as many patients.

Visitors to this website have very strong feelings about DTC drug commercials:

“Drug advertising in any form should be banned. As long as it exists, the ads should show pictures of people suffering the adverse effects that are mentioned. Now, the commercials show happy people having fun, even while scary side effects are listed.”

A.C. provides a somewhat cynical view:

“The numerous negative side effects listed with the TV ads are not so much to be informative but rather to serve as CYAs [derriere protection] for Big Pharma in case someone suffers one of those side effects and tries to sue.
Then the advertiser can escape the suit by saying, ‘Oh, no. You were warned in our TV ad and you chose to take the drug anyway. We aren’t at fault.'”

Here is Mary’s “two cents”:

“Drug ads have no place in the media. Watching people frolicking about while a friendly, cheerful voice is telling you in the most matter-of-fact way that side effects such as strokes, heart attacks, and DEATH have occurred as a result of taking this medicine makes me angry, and it scares me that many people conditioned to staring at the tube all day just see the name of the drug and the ‘fun’ associated with it. Advertising at its best.”

We Pay for Big Pharma Drug Commercials

Other have pointed out that television drug ads are pricey, as this reader notes:

“Big pharmaceutical companies spend more on marketing than they do on R&D. The inclusion of litanies of side effects in the ads hasn’t deterred enough customers to stop the drugs from becoming billion-dollar sellers to millions of Americans.”

By the way, the FDA is considering a proposal to reduce the number of scary side effects mentioned on those TV commercials that annoy just about everyone. This would make the pharmaceutical industry very happy. If they can reduce the number of side effects they have to mention they might entice even more people “to ask your doctor if drug X is right for you.” Furious? Here is a recent article with more details on this plan.

Keeping People in the Dark

Drug makers have not won public points with transparency. Some of the largest and most influential companies have fought to keep their clinical trial data secret, although Americans would like to know more about this research. People have better access to data about the pros and cons of a car or a refrigerator they might purchase than to information about their medicines.

Generic drug manufacturers also suffer damage to their reputations because they won’t share information about how their products compare to the brand name drugs they are copying. The FDA protects bioequivalence data on the grounds that it is proprietary, but generic drug companies could share it if they chose.

Both generic companies and big brand name manufacturers have paid record fines in recent years. One of the largest generic drug makers in India had to pay $500 million to the U.S. government because of drug safety violations and falsified submissions to the FDA.

Brand name companies have paid billions in legal settlements to patients harmed in the course of taking their drugs. Just a few weeks ago it was announced that the maker of the diabetes drug Actos would pay $2.4 billion to settle thousands of lawsuits. Details here.

How to Improve Big PHARMA’s Image!

If drug companies want an improved public image, here are some suggestions:

  1. Be transparent. Tell us precisely how effective your medicines are: what is the likelihood of benefit and harm? If only 5 people out of 100 will benefit from your medicine, tell it straight instead of trying to put lipstick on your pig.
  2. Lower your damn prices!
  3. Finally, stop advertising prescription drugs on TV!

Share your own thoughts about the image of the pharmaceutical industry (brand and generic) in the comment section below. And please vote on this article at the top of the page.

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  1. MAXHOPE
    Reply

    Most of these drugs, just mask the symptoms, but then trigger of a new set of health concerns! I have CFS/ME and Fibromyalgia…..I am multi chemical sensitive! I only use natural remedies… 99% pain free, but still working on improving my energy!

  2. JUDY
    NORTH CAROLINA
    Reply

    Drug companies are taking advantage of the American public in more ways that most people realize. The drug ads directed toward PATIENTS are nothing compared to the marketing to physicians — they distribute information that, quite often, is unproven or even completely untrue. Most Americans never hear about those big fines but, from what I understand, every major drug company has paid fines in the billions in the last ten years for falsifying test results, marketing inappropriately, paying physicians to prescribe — a multitude of things yet the average citizen never hears about it in the news.

    Here is a site where you research if you physician has been paid to speak about certain drugs — https://projects.propublica.org/docdollars/

    I happened on a video on YouTube about the current addiction to prescription drugs by US citizens — there are more people addicted to prescription drugs than to illegal drugs — and it focused primarily on pain medicines. It showed a clip from a drug company employee speaking — saying that people who were suffering from real pain would NOT get addicted to opiates, that it was not likely. Doctors were TOLD that these drugs (Vicodin and other hydrocodone drugs) did not cause addiction. We are finding that is totally untrue and that many people become addicted to pain meds very quickly.

    The idea, though, that an American businessman (or woman) would have the interests of the people their products “serve” at heart — unfortunately, that is no longer true. It is so very sad. Everyone worries about socialism — but, right now, capitalism, in the deformed process it has become in our country, is eating us alive.

  3. jvw
    Florida
    Reply

    I hope the drug companies continue their infuriating, boring, mind-destroying, stupid ads on TV and in newspapers and magazines. An increasing number of people may then come to the conclusion that alternative, “integrative”, “functional” medicine is a far superior road to health than the life-long forms of poisons that drug companies wish the public to become addicted to. I also blame our medical practitioners who appear to have tunnel vision and refuse to explore alternative forms of natural, God-given, inexpensive healing. The whole insurance/big pharma/medical research/medical school industry is getting far too rich and corrupt in the present industrial/medical complex.

  4. Donald E.
    Baltimore, Md.
    Reply

    I do not watch TV very much anymore because of all the commercials and when they do come on the volume goes OFF. Same with listening to RADIO… commercial comes on, volume goes all the way down… I know they have to make $ with commercials, BUT I do not have to listen to the stupid stuff! Thanks!

  5. Jose O
    93291
    Reply

    The only thing I can say is that all the comments above are very true we need some kind of help from someone good that understand class action against this big Pharma business money makers.

  6. Barbara
    St. Maries, ID
    Reply

    I have complained about drug ads to every magazine I subscribed to that had 4 page drug ads, even dropped my subscriptions because of it. I have become totally disgusted trying to watch the evening news on broadcast TV, complained to each of those to no avail…..
    It is totally inappropriate to advertise drugs on TV. A consumer has no business making medical decisions based on a TV ad, and it only makes the drug unaffordable for those who really need it.
    The problem is insurance….why do we need a middleman to pay our bills. Maybe prices would come down, if the real market was able to work. We all pay for “insurance” whether we have it or not.. this is a mess needing a makeover…….

  7. Ed
    NC
    Reply

    Perhaps the high cost of US drugs, protection from alternate sources of medicine and resultant secrecy in effectiveness is also the result of having to support the election of politicians to protect Big pricing, effectiveness, and alternative treatments from exposure the public and the FDA. Free market principles is just fluff to the excessive chase for higher profits for the 1% to the detriment of the rest.

  8. Barbara
    Florida
    Reply

    I agree with all of the above…Price must come down..ads should stop on TV and it’s time for government to step in and start taking care of the people who put them in office.
    Thank you

  9. TR
    Florida
    Reply

    Not only should pharmaceutical companies be required to stop advertising to the general public in ALL media, they should also be held accountable for the number of citizens now heavily addicted to their products. Many of the families in crisis where I live are in trouble because someone in the family is addicted to pharmaceuticals, often as the result of a medical procedure at some time in the past. If there’s such a heavy handed response to illicit drugs, why not the same level playing field for big pharma?

  10. Mary
    Reply

    The last drug I had prescribed about 16 months ago was marginally effective BUT definitely not a cure.
    I find a supplement is a more effective treatment, while it also is not a cure. At least side effects are gone.

    I am on NO prescription drugs now @ age 76.

  11. Helen M
    Modesto, CA
    Reply

    Though many insurance companies covered part of the cost of medications, once Medicare decided to initiate Part D, drug prices began to go up and up and up. Yet the ceiling on the Medicare allowance remains much the same. The original thinking was that most seniors would never experience the “donut hole”; I went into it the very first year on Medicare Part D and from what I read in various places on the net, so did many other Medicare recipients. Now, tho I do not know the numbers, I bet just about any senior on medication goes above the allowed amount of $2960 before the year is out.

    You mention the cost of insulin as $2 in the 1970s; well it is close to $200 now; diabetics are a very lucrative market. Testing strips are $1 each, tho they have recently been moved to Medicare Part B and no longer count towards your “allowance”. It is like Medicare has invited the pharmaceutical companies to come to a feast of Medicare dollars. Then there are those who do not have Medicare. High drug prices drive up insurance costs and those are passed on as increased premiums. Unless we go to a national health system, eventually only those with either money or Medicare will be able to afford health care. It is time to get drugs off TV and Big Pharma out of politics.

  12. Nancy
    Arlington Heights, IL
    Reply

    I am glad that the drug companies list their side effects on their ads. When I hear, “blistering of skin, muscle pain, cancer and ‘possibly’ fatal” it sends up a red flag for something to avoid at all costs.
    Altho I have psoriatic arthritis, I avoid Humira and the like, just because of its side effects.
    People should pay attention to the side effects and under no circumstances should the FDA shorten the list. And consumers should be informed by the drug manufacturer and on TV, Internet, etc. of the country of origin where it is made.
    In so many cases, there is no oversight over the medications that unsuspecting patients ingest.

  13. Judith
    Kfar Saba, Israel
    Reply

    Big Pharma’s loyalty is to its stockholders, and no one else.
    Expecting pharmaceutical companies to be beneficent is unrealistic. The only things which help keep them in check are 1) fear of class action suits and 2) the FDA.
    We can write to the FDA, but unfortunately it is relatively weak.

  14. Karin
    Austin, Texas
    Reply

    After paying $49 for a compound mouthwash just the other day at the People’s Pharmacy, I actually had to laugh reading the article….not because of what it said, but knowing other places also use a “high-way robbery” type of approach.

    • The People's Pharmacy
      Reply

      We are guessing that the People’s Pharmacy where you purchased your mouthwash might have been in Texas. We (www.PeoplesPharmacy.com) are not a bricks and mortar drugstore. We do NOT sell mouthwash, OTC drugs or prescription medications.

  15. Nan
    Texas
    Reply

    Bravo for the excellent article! There should be no ads for prescriptions on television. The practice adds to the expense, and probably also contributes to unnecessary pressure on doctors to prescribe inappropriate medicines. The industry’s current practices in setting prices may eventually provoke demands for more regulation and restrictions, which I’m sure they don’t want. Drug companies are making lots of money these days for investors.

  16. Don
    Dallas, Tx
    Reply

    Don’t worry. There is a stopping point. The drug companies will price themselves out of the market. Unfortunately that will be after hundreds of thousands of people have gone broke trying to stay alive or died because they can’t afford these ridiculous prices. There has to be a rebellion of sorts. We have to act through our elected officials and counteract the billions of dollars in advertising and more importantly the billions in lobbying dollars.

  17. nell m.
    United States
    Reply

    Drugs are getting to be worse than they fix. The magazines I subscribe to must be working hard to stay in business. They have more and more pharmacy ads and most of the time it takes up to 3 pages to insert all of the information, good or bad, in small print. Due to thyroid cancer and removal of my thyroid I have been on Synthroid for some time. Then it was recommended that I try generic levothroxine. After a while I was feeling terrible with symptoms that scared me. Then I wondered if it was the generic brand so I asked to switch back to synthroid. In just a few days I was back to “normal”.

    Doctors need to learn more about the drugs they prescribe and pay attention to what drugs their patients are using. As I have mentioned before, after my husband died and I was getting rid of his meds, I decided to check on the Internet what side effects they had. Surprisingly, most of them had the same side effects as the other ones he was taking. I am not bitter, only wiser. My research also made me wonder if some of the drugs led to other problems, particularly the statin ones they kept increasing and developing type II diabetes. Perhaps my husband would have died when he did, but I am convinced all the meds with the same side effects he had to live with didn’t really improve his enjoyment of life.

  18. Jack
    Florida
    Reply

    Could hardly agree more. I’ve lived long enough to have watched the approval rating for big pharma go downhill, and I, too, think direct to public advertising of pharmaceuticals robs the physician of some of her discretionary judgment, as patients come in pressuring doctors for drugs whose full effects and appropriateness they may understand poorly or not at all. I’m fortunate in that neither my wife or I currently require any prescription medication, but am not looking forward to the time that we will.
    A few other pet peeves –
    – that in an example of ‘what the market will bear’ many drugs are sold in other countries for much less than in the US.
    – that the differential effectiveness of many drugs over placebos or existing, less expensive alternatives, is almost negligible, but they are approved and marketed anyway.
    – that the support stream for research into Alzheimer’s treatment is as small as it is, given the near pandemic scale it will be approaching as the population ages.

    I appreciate the light Peoples Pharmacy shines on the pharmaceutical industry in general, and some of the dark corners within it in particular. Keep up the good fight.

  19. Joe
    U.S.
    Reply

    Your thoughts are a mirror of what I feel. I can’t believe any worker has a conscious that works for big pharmaceutical as it is today. No integrity. Thank you for the article… I practiced anesthesia before retirement. If my profession had played so fast and loose, we would be no better than quacks. Joe

  20. Howard
    Texas
    Reply

    These is a great start, but at 76 I do not expect to any changes in my life time. My cynic side is showing I know, but when it comes to money and the Gvt nothing moves fast.

  21. Dorothy
    North Carolina
    Reply

    It is about time that thought should be given to ban drug companies from advertising. Then the prices of new drugs would come down and more research and development could be done. Lately, it seems as if the drug companies just want to make money and they don’t really care about how to cure people of various diseases.

  22. Janice
    27316
    Reply

    I think the doctors should be watching and talking about side effects with drugs to the patients as well as big Pharma. Why are so many drugs made out of the country where sanitation and safety might be a very real concern without being regulated? I have gotten to where I won’t take a drug unless I see a real need and if it disagrees with me, I stop it quickly. If you can’t depend on anyone to tell you the truth about what you are taking, then you have to do what you can to protect yourself. The cost of anything medical is way too high.

    This article is about drugs but medical facility cost are out outrageous and insurance is through the roof. And all areas of it seem rapped in deceit. Today, you can’t afford medical care with out insurance nor can you afford the drugs prescribed with out insurance. Insurance whether it is Medicare or other, is a necessary evil.

  23. Joe
    North Carolina
    Reply

    Pharmaceutical companies in the USA overprice their products by a high margin when selling them in the USA compared to other countries without question. They also do not publish sources of herbs or sell them along with their drugs.

    Physicians in the USA appear to be totally bonded to the pharmaceutical companies. Few physicians ever mention herbs and do not seem aware or even interested in herbal cures.
    We should start a movements at hospitals and with physicians to get interested in and knowledgeable of herbal values.

  24. Patrick
    Houston, TX
    Reply

    The government should ban drug companies from advertising drugs in any form on any media. Disallow any tax deduction for drug advertising, and force the drug companies to lower prices!!
    Or as is done in other countries, PRICE CONTROLS!

  25. Kathy
    NC
    Reply

    I agree – the drug companies don’t need to advertise and keep the prices so high. They also don’t want us to get well!

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