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:
- 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.
- Lower your damn prices!
- 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.