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A new corporate villain - drugmakers?

A number of charges against the pharmaceutical industry damages its credibility and further erodes public support.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 20, 2004



Big Pharma is in danger of joining Big Oil and Big Tobacco as one of the bad boys of American industry. A slew of revelations have stung drugmakers in recent months - from charges of hiding unflattering clinical trials to studies showing a link between the use of antidepressants in children and suicidal thoughts. The companies' stance against allowing Americans to buy cheaper drugs in Canada has further eroded public support.

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Now, a steady stream of critical books - with titles such as "On The Take" and "The $800 Million Pill" - lambastes the way the companies do business.

"It's obviously frustrating," says Jeff Trewhitt, a spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the industry trade group. "We think it's the result of a barrage of distorted allegations, and we are trying to fight back." The charges have "obscured the fact that the US pharmaceutical and biotechnology research industry is the most innovative ... in the world," he says, supplying 60 to 70 percent of the world's new medicines.

Nevertheless, the charges keep coming. In June, New York's attorney general sued GlaxoSmithKline for, among other things, suppressing clinical findings that its antidepressant drug was ineffective in children and teens and possibly could cause suicidal behavior. The drug industry has since announced it will establish a voluntary database of clinical studies. But some in Congress, as well as the American Medical Association and medical journal editors, are calling for a mandatory registry that would make public all clinical trials, even the ones where the drugs failed to work.

Then last week, advisory panels to the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urged the strongest possible warnings on the use of antidepressants in children.

What's more, the current publicity about antidepressants "almost certainly" will lead to more lawsuits against drug manufacturers, says Richard Daynard, an expert in product liability and consumer protection who teaches at Northeastern University in Boston. People will say "these guys did know [about the problems]. They should have told me," Professor Daynard says.

The drumbeat of revelations has damaged the industry's credibility. A majority of Americans (55 percent) now think drug companies should be more closely regulated and two-thirds of Americans say drug prices are unreasonably high, according to Harris polls this year. Most significantly, only 44 percent say pharmaceutical companies serve their customers well. That's down 35 percentage points since 1997, the biggest drop in approval among any of the 15 industries the poll tracks. Only four industries - health insurance (36 percent), oil (32 percent), managed care or HMOs (30 percent), and tobacco (30 percent) - now rank lower.

Big Pharma is not the first industry to enter the doghouse of American public opinion. The 1970s gasoline shortages and the infamous 1989 spill from the oil tanker Exxon Valdez off the Alaskan coast have made Big Oil a longtime member of the bad boys club.

Big Tobacco has an even longer history, although many Americans assume it got its comeuppance in 1998 when US state attorneys general won a gigantic $206 billion settlement against cigarettemakers.

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