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Pharmaceuticals Propping Up The Sick To Push Their Pills

They've been doing it for years. Why not? It's a brilliant strategy if you want to sell your product. The testimonial. Who can resist the "I've used it, and it's worked wonders for me" line? Except now, they are getting the testimonials to manipulate people into pressuring health agencies to OK the drug faster.

First they find what they call an "opinion leader". Someone who can be quoted, someone who seems to be credible. And they try to get that person to basically sell the drug to the public. It also helps if they get out a message that says "the government is keeping you from getting this miraculous life-saving drug". Play up the outrage. It's a good motivator.

Lisa Jardine was at home recovering from chemotherapy one evening last May when the phone rang. She was not feeling all that well; the conversation that followed made her feel worse. There was only one breast cancer story around last May, as is still true today: Herceptin. It was a wonder drug - it halved some women's chances of having a recurrence of their cancer. But women who would die without it were being denied access, apparently for financial reasons - or so the story went. Women with aggressive, early-stage breast cancers had taken to the streets and the courts for their right to get it. So when - a week before the phone call - Jardine, who had had breast cancer, was asked in a newspaper interview what she thought about Herceptin, she responded that although she was confident she was receiving the best of care, "if Herceptin really is as effective as we are being told, I do feel I ought to be given the choice".

Then came the phone call. "Halfway through the following week, the phone goes at home," says Jardine, professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary, University of London, writer and well-known television presenter. "It's a really nice woman. She says to me, 'I read about you in the paper and I gather you'd like access to Herceptin and you can't get it.'"

By now, however, Jardine had decided that she did not want the drug. "I said, 'No - that's not the case with me. I have decided not to have Herceptin.'

"She said, 'Even if you don't want it yourself, would you come and talk to some of our seminars because we're running a big campaign to promote Herceptin? Either we could find funding for Herceptin or, if you really don't want it or decide against it, there would be fees for appearances.'

"I said, 'Could you tell me where you are from?' She said, 'We work for Roche.'


It helps to explain how a drug such as Herceptin, despite being as yet unlicensed for use on women with early-stage cancer, and despite there being only a few years of test data from its manufacturers Roche to support claims being made by some for benefits for this group of women, came to be a household name and a cause celebre.

The industry journal Pharmaceutical Marketing ran a recent piece describing how "motivated patients can move mountains and boost your drug's fortunes".

Once you stir up the public outrage ("I should get everything that I deserve that I'm not already getting), it makes it that much easier for the pharmaceuticals to get their drugs approved. Especially with the UK's parliamentary system, MPs feel more beholden to their constituents than our Congressman. Your constituency is outraged. You might not get elected again if you don't appease them. Plus, how bad does the government look when you've got cancer patients saying you're keeping from them the one thing that could save their lives?

Look, it's good that politicians are beholden to their constituents. They ought to be. Their job is to represent the people, afterall. I know here in the States it seems more like the elite are there to keep the rabble in check, not to represent them. But, hey, it looked good on paper. Anyway, when the government fails to do its duty to its citizens, they certainly should speak out against it. But what's happening here is pharmaceuticals manipulating that system. They create a mythical problem. They feed this story to a public all too willing to feel abused by the government (and not without good reason considering little things like the lies that brought about the Iraq invasion and the widening gap between the rich and the poor) and sit back and watch the show. It's not the lawyers we should despise nowadays. It's the PR people.

Now, it doesn't stop with the random opinion leader. That would be leaving too much to chance. No. What you've also got to do is establish a steady set of supporters. Patient groups. Donate money to patient groups. The groups will cite their guidelines and talk about their integrity but....BUT "we believe it is important to maintain cooperative relationships with companies that manufacture and market cancer drugs and other treatments, in order to foster communication between the patients...and the companies whose decisions will affect their treatment".

Ah yes. Integrity. Remember the Body Shop? They sold their integrity for £130m to L'Oreal last month. That's about $280m US Dollars.

How much money does it take to get you to start blurring the lines? How much to convince you that the ends justify the means? We're a non-profit organization that wants to increase awareness of its patient members so that we can improve treatment, but we're going to need funding to get that message out, to keep our campaign going. Here's a pharmaceutical who's going to donate a very generous sum to our organization. It's going to be a strictly hands off relationship. Sure sure. We aren't going to shill their product for them. But they're not our enemies. We all use drugs that they've manufactured. They've done their share of good. And they can provide us with good info on the drugs they do manufacture. It's a win-win situation. And we've got those guidelines to keep us in check.

You get the picture. Perdition. Good intentions.

By min | April 20, 2006, 9:40 AM | Liberal Outrage & Science