TWN Info Service on Health Issues (October 06/5)

14 October 2006

Big Pharma’s Dirty Tricks Exposed

Big pharmaceutical companies today are accused of endangering public health through wide-scale marketing malpractices. A Consumers International report shows how drug companies are creating illnesses and using kickbacks, cartels and the Internet in the hope of maximising profits.

The article below is reproduced from Third World Network Features, October 2006. 

With best wishes
Evelyne Hong

Big Pharma’s Dirty Tricks Exposed

The world’s major drug manufacturers are spending more on promoting their drugs than they are on researching them, a report by the Consumers International (CI), the international federation of consumer groups, has found.

According to its report, Branding The Cure, maximisation of profit is being put before health considerations.

There is a shocking lack of publicly available information about the $60 billion spent annually by the industry on drug promotion, the report says of its study of 20 of the world’s biggest drug companies.

The report sets out to review how self-regulation and corporate social responsibility had fared within the drug industry since Health Action International published Blurring The Boundaries: New Trends in Drug Promotion in 1998.

Blurring the Boundaries found that, ‘Globally, there is a huge imbalance in the financial resources available for promotional versus independent information. As a result, consumers and prescribers are generally subject to a positive information bias: the benefits of medicine use tend to be exaggerated and the risks downplayed. And codes of practice [for drug promotion] tend to be largely voluntary and are rarely enforced.

‘It is incredibly disappointing,’ says the CI report, ‘that, almost a decade later, the picture of drug promotion and its control regime has hardly changed for the better.’

The abuses detailed in Branding The Cure show that drug companies are creating illnesses and using kickbacks, cartels and chatrooms to make their drugs more profitable.

The drug companies stand accused of:

- promoting their products through patients’ groups, students and Internet chatrooms to bypass a ban on direct advertising to the public and to ‘create a subtle need among consumers to demand drugs for the conditions’.

A further form of ‘nice and friendly’ marketing identified involves providing disease information via general health pamphlets and magazine articles on ‘modern’ lifestyle conditions, such as stress and eating habits, to encourage people to ask their doctors for medicines.

- corrupting doctors and health professionals. The report states, ‘It can be concluded that corrupting healthcare professionals is not an uncommon practice among pharmaceutical companies.’ The tactics involve ‘kickbacks and consulting agreements’. The kickbacks involve free samples that research has shown creates a Pavlovian demand and willingness to supply the branded drug that is usually more expensive as well as extravagant trips to exotic locations for ‘conferences’ on new drugs and conditions.

Most major companies also use specialist PR consultancies to groom health professionals to become ‘key opinion leaders’ (KOL) and to promote the company’s products through their work. ‘They may be paid by the company for their promotional efforts via presentations, research papers, conferences and debates,’ the report states. Consequently, if there’s a conflict of interest or ‘profit motive’ behind the information on the drugs they receive, the public remain unaware of it.

‘More than half of all the companies surveyed have been implicated in controversies regarding free samples, kickbacks, and gifts to medical professionals,’ the report says.

- pursuing ‘a variety of anti-competitive strategies, including cartels, fraudulent patent manoeuvres, offering improper discounts, price hikes, payments to competitors for not challenging patents and cutting off supplies of drugs and active ingredients’, to keep prices high and secure markets.

As was recently highlighted in The Ecologist, the report says studies have shown that the results of drug trials are more likely to be positive where funding is provided by the manufacturer, and that many research articles are ghostwritten in the name of eminent doctors who may or may not have had access to all the trial results.

‘All the while, consumers are in the dark about how their medicine consumption choices are the result of veiled relationships between doctors and the pharmaceutical companies,’ says the report.