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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Book of Matthew: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Healthcare, Part 1

Published: January 16, 2009
Section: Opinions

the_hoot_1-16-09final_page_05_image_0002In this day and age, one would think that Americans would be able to have faith in their medicine. After all, we live in the wealthiest nation in the world. We live in the 21st century. This is the height of human scientific achievement.

We should be able to take medicine when we need it, without having to worry about whether it will work, or whether it will drive us into bankruptcy.

Not so, says Big Pharma.

“Big Pharma,” in case you were wondering, refers to the pharmaceutical industry. And what a big industry it is. According to the annual Fortune 500 survey, the pharmaceutical industry is the most profitable business in America and has experienced growth even as other industries have succumbed to the difficult economy.

To some, this news may come as a surprise—we have, after all, gotten used to hearing stories about cutbacks in consumer spending and the subsequent drop in business revenue—but to others it makes perfect sense. Big Pharma, after all, is an enormous marketing machine that takes advantage of our annoying habit of “putting our health first.”

Nothing is more telling than Big Pharma’s budget. Although not everything is known about how these companies spend their enormous revenue, we do know that they spend, on average, two-and-a-half times as much money on marketing as they do on research and development.

Which means that most of the money made from the sale of these ridiculously high-priced drugs goes not to the search for new drugs that people need but to those smiling faces on television asking you to, “ask your doctor about…” some drug that you don’t need.

I am, of course, referring to the incredible number of pharmaceutical drug commercials that are aired on television every day. So often, in fact, that it is almost impossible to make it through a commercial break without seeing one.

These commercials are quite effective. They target the masses perfectly, by portraying people whose lives were in shambles (or close to it) until they asked their doctor about whatever miracle drug that they are trying to advertise. They consist of 95% emotion, 5% information, and we the viewers cannot help but fall for them

I’m not kidding. People actually do go into their doctor’s office and demand to be prescribed a drug that they saw advertised on television because they feel that they have developed the symptoms described in the advertisement. In many cases, doctors—who may be very intelligent but cannot read minds—are forced to prescribe drugs to people who do not need them.

That money, of course, goes back into Big Pharma’s advertising budget, and the cycle continues.

The truly scary thing is that Big Pharma makes so much money by selling us drugs that we do not need, it has shown little concern with making drugs for people who do need them. In fact, about three-quarters of all new drugs approved by the FDA each year are not “new”, but rather, iterations of drugs already on the market.

These drugs, known in some circles as “me-too” drugs, are perfectly legal, even if they are less effective than the drugs that they are imitating. The only requirement is that they be more effective than a placebo (which has no effect at all).

It’s actually kind of ironic. After all, Big Pharma spends an incredible amount of money trying to stop generic drug makers from imitating their drugs when they do it themselves all the time.

But then again, why waste time, effort, and money on serious research when you can make a good haul selling people the same thing in a different package?

The reason why I bring this up is not only so you will be more careful about what you see on television (even though we all should). I mention it because Big Pharma is a huge player in our national healthcare crisis. While politicians, journalists, and television personalities argue over what we should do to solve the insurance crisis and how we can provide all Americans with universal healthcare, it seems that we have all forgotten about the products that this reformed healthcare is supposed to help us buy.

But what is true in the realm of health insurance also applies to Big Pharma. It has become increasingly clear that market solutions do not work.

I would immediately suggest that the government treat Big Pharma the same way it has begun to treat the tobacco industry, by banning their television advertisements. This act alone would free up incredible amounts of money that pharmaceutical companies could use purely for research.

I would also suggest strengthening restrictions on “me-too” drugs, so that pharmaceutical companies would be forced to spend more money on researching drugs that people need, rather than drugs they can already get.

In short, we must not be afraid to get tough with big business, particularly one that is supposed to serve our needs.

We must realize that drugs are not meant to make buckets of cash for corporate executives. They are meant to help people who are suffering.