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What is A Drug Company’s Principle Responsibility?

I admit, there was a time when I bought the comforting image of a drug industry that had your and my best interests in mind. I just assumed that every new breakthrough drug gave each of us a better chance of living longer healthier lives.

But that was a long, long time ago — long before I started writing about health care.

Over the past decade the Big Pharma curtain has been pulled back, and what a revelation it’s been! Disastrous fiascos (Vioxx, Avandia), trusted names, crashing and burning (Johnson & Johnson, Merck), and the unsettling realization that drug factories are often mismanaged — all of this has combined to make many consumers as jumpy as cats in a hurricane when it comes to using newly-approved drugs.

So with trust in pharmaceuticals at an all-time low, who is the last person drug companies would want to hear from?

Someone like Donald Light, Ph.D., who states it plainly: The drug industry is a “market for lemons.”

Ask your doctor if lemons are right for you

Specifically, Dr. Light calls the drug industry a “two-tier market for lemons.”

In tier one, drug companies overstate a new drug’s benefits and downplay or even hide details about serious side effects.

Tier two: Doctors are given misleading information that they pass along to their patients.

And a lot of patients go home with a lot of lemons.

In an analysis he presented at a meeting of the American Sociological Association, Dr. Light ticked off three key reasons why the drug industry produces lemon after lemon:

1) New drugs are tested by drug companies
2) Drug companies put up complex walls of legal protection to hide information about possible harm or lack of effectiveness
3) A new drug doesn’t actually need to be very effective to get FDA approval

Hmmm…I wonder if Dr. Light’s been reading the HSI e-Alert?

He’s also been poring over research. And he found this gem: In a study that examined more than 100 drug applications, about 40 percent didn’t have adequately randomized trials, nearly 40 percent were short of evidence to support efficacy, and only about half recognized serious adverse side effects.

Yeah…that sounds about right.

But here’s the best part: the drug industry rebuttal.

A senior VP of PhRMA (an industry advocacy group) told The Pharma Letter that Dr. Light’s analysis is “insulting to patients.” And you can imagine the gist of his defense: Many billions of dollars are devoted to R&D each year, lives are improved and extended, it’s difficult to bring a drug to market, etc.

And on the topic of safety: “To allege a lack of transparency about the risks of medicines is flatly incorrect.”

How in the world did he manage to say that without bursting out laughing? A lack of transparency is a drug industry art! Even the CIA doesn’t do lack-of-transparency as well as drug companies do.

In the end, I thought Dr. Light’s analysis was best summed up by this comment from Dr. Max Pemberton, a columnist for The Telegraph: “A drug company’s principle responsibility is to its shareholders, not to the patient.”

There you go. Once you get that, everything else is transparently clear.

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