The pharmaceutical industry is a huge mess, which has little, if anything, to do with making people healthy. The way the system is currently designed, if it's more profitable for a pharmaceutical company to put you at greater risk, it will do so. And sometimes the US gov't will help them brush it under the rug. Reader Bill Pickett points us to a recent investigative report concerning the big, high-publicity lawsuit the US gov't filed against Pfizer, after the company blatantly went against FDA approvals and marketed a drug for all sorts of alternative uses
, which the FDA had specifically noted could be dangerous and could put people at greater risk.
The FDA approved Bextra only for arthritis and menstrual cramps. It rejected the drug in higher doses for acute, surgical pain.
Promoting drugs for unapproved uses can put patients at risk by circumventing the FDA's judgment over which products are safe and effective. For that reason, "off-label" promotion is against the law.
But with billions of dollars of profits at stake, marketing and sales managers across the country nonetheless targeted anesthesiologists, foot surgeons, orthopedic surgeons and oral surgeons. "Anyone that use[d] a scalpel for a living," one district manager advised in a document prosecutors would later cite.
A manager in Florida e-mailed his sales reps a scripted sales pitch that claimed -- falsely -- that the FDA had given Bextra "a clean bill of health" all the way up to a 40 mg dose, which is twice what the FDA actually said was safe....
Internal company documents show that Pfizer and Pharmacia (which Pfizer later bought) used a multimillion-dollar medical education budget to pay hundreds of doctors as speakers and consultants to tout Bextra.
Pfizer said in court that "the company's intent was pure": to foster a legal exchange of scientific information among doctors.... But an internal marketing plan called for training physicians "to serve as public relations spokespeople."
Where the story gets scary is in what happened when all this came out. Federal officials announced a criminal case over this, but they didn't actually sue Pfizer directly. Instead, they sued a (not kidding) subsidiary of a subsidiary of a subsidiary of a subsidiary of Pfizer, which was basically set up just take the brunt of this lawsuit:
According to court documents, Pfizer Inc. owns (a) Pharmacia Corp., which owns (b) Pharmacia & Upjohn LLC, which owns (c) Pharmacia & Upjohn Co. LLC, which in turn owns (d) Pharmacia & Upjohn Co. Inc. It is the great-great-grandson of the parent company.
But it was only that last one, Pharmacia & Upjohn Co. Inc., that was sued -- and the report also notes that this company just happened to be set up the same day that Pfizer and federal officials worked out a deal for it to plead guilty -- even though it, as an entity, hadn't done anything.
Why did they do this? Well, if Pfizer itself had been found guilty then it would be barred from Medicare and Medicaid, and prosecutors figured it would effectively close down Pfizer -- and Pfizer was deemed "too big to fail" like that. Why? I have no idea. If the company really did have to close down, it seems likely that others would have picked up the company's various products -- and perhaps done so without putting people's lives at risk.
Really, the problem here is the way the entire system is set up. The FDA requires expensive and involved clinical trials. This is very good
, because we want to make sure that any drugs actually do what they're supposed to do, and don't have serious side effects or cause even worse problems. But, the system is currently set up so that the pharmaceutical company itself is in charge of paying for and running those clinical trials, which creates two very problematic situations. First, it gives the company all sorts of incentives to fudge the results or to pretend the results said something different than they really did (see the example above, or Merck with Vioxx) and second, it contributes to the "expense" that a drugmaker can claim comes from developing a new drug, which is part of why it demands patent rights. But if you break out the costs of the clinical trials, the marketing-hidden-ad-development-costs, and the amount of research that's actually funded by gov't grants -- you find that pharmaceutical firms really aren't spending nearly as much as they claim. A big part of the issue is the clinical trials, and that's leading to all sorts of questionable behavior. In the past, some have suggested that such trials should be conducted by the gov't, rather than by the pharma companies themselves. While I'm not sure that's the answer, it's pretty clear that the existing system is not working, if our end goal is to make people healthier.