By Martha Rosenberg | Alternet.org | Dec. 22, 1010
Even during a recession, pharma is still the nation's third most profitable sector. Here are some of the dirty tricks it employs to stay on top.
Even during a two-year recession with people losing their homes and jobs, pharma is still the nation's third most profitable sector. How does it do that? In part by cheating the government, misrepresenting science, bribing doctors, patients and pharmacies, and squeezing the FDA. Other than that, the industry plays completely fair. Pharma has often been criticized for lack of creativity in developing new drugs. But these dirty tricks show its creativity is alive and well when it comes to putting the public at risk just to turn a profit.
1. Astroturf Patients?
Pharma promotes fake patient advocacy groups to lobby for its interests.
These front groups often push the FDA to approve an expensive drug that has acceptable, cheaper alternatives. Or, they'll try to prevent Medicaid from switching to the less pricey drug. One of the largest faux groups, the "grassroots" National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), was investigated by Sen. Charles Grassley for undisclosed pharma links. He found the 10 top NAMI state chapters received $3.84 million from pharma in less than five years, the biggest largesse from Eli Lilly, AstraZeneca and Bristol-Myers Squibb.
How else can you tell an astroturf group? Their Web sites look just like the pharma companies that fund them.
2. Cheating the Government
Pharma is now a top defrauder of the federal government. “Desperate to maintain their high margin of profit in the face of a dwindling number of important new drugs,” pharma illegally promotes unapproved uses of drugs and deliberately overcharges Medicare and Medicaid, says Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. Pharmaceutical companies have been hit with $14.8 billion in wrongdoing settlements in the last five years. But that's still cheaper for Big Pharma than going about things the old-fashioned, legal way. So the fraud continues.
3. Trials and Fibulations
Presiding over clinical trials can make a doctor thousands per patient. But they wouldn't compromise patient safety just to make a buck, would they? Medical College of Georgia psychiatrist Richard Borison and his colleague Bruce Diamond did 13 years ago when they tested Zyprexa, Risperdal and 20 other drugs and ended up in jail. So did Baystate Medical Center's Scott Reuben, who went to prison earlier this year for fraudulent Celebrex, Neurontin and Lyrica trials. And a Tucson facility testing asthma drugs Symbicort, Advair and Singulair doctored data and risked patients' health to net as much as $10,000 per patient, according to a whistleblower and government and court documents. How many other drugs were tested for such fiscal outcomes? Not counting recalled ones, of course.
4. More Trials and Fibulations
Even without fraud, pharma-sponsored studies can deceive. Trials that only determine that a drug is "not worse" than another one or impute safety before real data are available -- as in the case of Vioxx and Avandia's threat of heart attacks -- can skew results. And some research is not meant to be accurate to begin with. The Johnson & Johnson Center for Pediatric Psychopathology Research at Massachusetts General Hospital was founded to "move forward the commercial goals of J.& J." according to unsealed court documents. Its head, Harvard's Joseph Biederman, promised J.& J. a proposed drug trial "will support the safety and effectiveness of risperidone [Risperdal] in this age group," before it was ever conducted. Why leave things up to science?
5. Overseas Adventurism
As pharma increasingly eyes poorer countries for new markets and cheaper manufacturing it also eyes them for cheaper clinical trials. In 1996, 11 Nigerian children died in trials testing Pfizer's not-yet-approved antibiotic Trovan. While Pfizer paid the Nigerian government and state of Kano millions in a settlement, documents released by Wikileaks show that Pfizer tried to extort Nigeria's former attorney general to drop the lawsuits. Trovan was withdrawn from U.S. markets in 2001 for liver toxicity, though "safety signals" may have appeared sooner.
6. Clueless Institutional Review Boards
Institutional review boards, charged with overseeing clinical trials, should catch the unsafe drugs and shady trials. But a Congress and General Accountability Office sting conducted last year on a Colorado review board raises serious doubts. When asked to oversee a study of Adhesiabloc, a product designed to reduce scar tissue after surgery, Coast Independent Review Board said...when do we start? Even though the product did not exist -- nor did its developer or lead researcher!
7. 'Previous Government Experience Desirable'
In the fight against medical fraud, the Justice Department is beginning to file criminal, not just civil, charges against pharma. More employees also are turning whistleblower thanks to provisions that entitle whistleblowers to 15 and even 30 percent of fraud settlements, in some cases. But the other side has a big advantage. As long as politicians like former Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin, who left government to head the industry trade group PhRMA, and former CDC director Julie Gerberding, now head of Merck vaccines, are willing to commit a career's worth of knowledge, judgment and relationships to sell product, the government is fighting itself.
8. Double Dealing at the Pharmacy
The best thing that ever happened to pharma (after direct-to-consumer advertising) is Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs). Their job is to negotiate the best drugs for their clients, which are heath and pension plans. But they seem far more adept at taking money to push pharma’s top branded drugs, regardless of the cost.
Recently CVS' pharmacy benefit manager, AdvancePCS, sent letters to doctors extolling the benefits of the expensive drug Zyprexa on behalf of drug giant Eli Lilly. Had a generic drug been prescribed over Zyprexa, savings would have been huge.
9. FDA Foreplay
A sneaky way pharma tries to get FDA to approve a drug -- even when the science isn’t there -- is to float the drug to the public. That's where directed marketing comes in. When “patients” (these are often astroturf groups), really want a drug approved, it puts huge pressure on the FDA to be sensitive to the public’s wishes. This tactic famously flopped for Boehringer-Ingelheim this year when it tried to sell a medication for "hypoactive sexual desire disorder" (HSDD) in women (first it had to sell the disease itself). Even though BI debuted its pink Viagra at a medical conference last year and rolled out its elaborate "Sex Brain Body: Make the Connection" Web site with TV personality Lisa Rinna soon after, FDA said no. Seems even though Boehringer-Ingelheim was effective in "raising awareness" about female sexual dysfunction, something else wasn't effective: the drug. And when it came to foreplay, the FDA had a headache.
10. Pharma Service Announcements
Public service announcements are messages for your own good, like, "Do You Know the Seven Warning Signs of Cancer?" But a lot of the awareness messages and warning signs you hear now are not from the government or medical groups, but pharma.
“Voices of Meningitis” ads on mom sites and online TV, for example, look like they are raising awareness of meningitis, but they were actually funded by maker Sanofi Pasteur, which makes a meningitis vaccine.
"Unbranded" advertising appears to have legit origins, like the National Association of School Nurses, which sponsors the Sanofi Pasteur’s meningitis ads. But when TV, radio and web messages push "awareness" of diseases like ADHD, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), restless legs syndrome (RLS) or excessive sleepiness (ES), be suspicious. Real diseases aren't given initials for quick recall and easy reference. Nor do they come with snappy self-quizzes and pretty patient models. Unbranded messages also pimp the PSA (public service announcement) money that media outlets have for actual public issues.
11. National 'Interests' of Health
The National Institutes of Health are supposed to fund research for the public health with the public's tax dollars. But recently, a researcher who was stripped of his own NIH grant because of his huge financial links to pharma, is ruling on other researchers' grants on NIH committees, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. The researcher, psychiatrist Charles Nemeroff, was also allowed to keep NIH funds when he moved to the University of Miami after being disqualified from them at Emory University. Clearly, when it comes to conflicts of interest at the top of level of government research, the fox is guarding the henhouse (or pork house).
12. Big Pharma Sends Schools Doctors
Continuing Medical Education (CME) are courses that doctors are required to take to keep their state licenses and stay up-to-date with current practice and treatment guidelines. But many are created by pharma, which covers the cost of the course for the doctor in exchange for unvarnished sales pitches. Worse, many are embarrassingly dumbed down.
A recent "course" offered by Medscape was titled "Quadrivalent HPV Vaccine May Be Effective in Women 24 to 45 Years Old." Participants were told that after taking the course, they would be able to "specify the currently recommended age range" for the vaccine (especially if they could read the title!). Another course manipulates participants to "lobby your legislators" for pharma-related Medicare funding. Congress recently investigated the billion-dollar continuing education industry for illegal marketing -- too bad Congress couldn’t investigate for stupidity.
Ghostwriting -- papers written by medical marketing writers, with doctors only posing as the authors -- was rampant until 2008 Congressional investigations. But even though it's now prohibited, few journals have retracted ghostwritten articles that sold Vioxx, Fen Phen, Prempro and probably Avandia. Asked about the papers ghostwritten "by" Lila Nachtigall, a professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Deborah Bohren, vice president for public affairs at New York University's Langone Medical Center said, "If we had received a complaint, we would have investigated."
A Congressional investigation doesn't qualify as a complaint?
14. Crooked Books and Slanted Messages
Pharma is often accused of ghostwriting articles that end up in medical journals under doctors' names who had nothing to do with the writing or research. But this month an entire textbook was accused of being funded and approved by pharma. The 1999 textbook, written to help primary care doctors diagnose psychiatric conditions, was funded entirely by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) -- which makes pills for... psychiatric conditions! Nor were its authors, two prominent psychiatrists, strangers to GSK. Alan Schatzberg is on GSK's speakers bureau and Charles Nemeroff was investigated by Congress for undeclared GSK income. Did the authors write the book themselves or was it ghostwritten by pharma or its marketing company? Does it matter?
15. May I Take Your Order?
Have you ever waited in a doctor's office with a 102-degree fever, only to have pharma reps swinging Vytorin totes see the doctor first, just because they brought free samples or lunch and are dressed for a music video (pharma tends to employ attractive people to hawk their wares)? Until Congressional investigations brought about the Physician Payments Sunshine Act, some doctors in medical centers say they never paid for a meal. Nor did pharma largesse end there. One doctor told AlterNet her entire group was jetted to a Caribbean island courtesy of her Paxil rep. Even medical students were schmoozed until the 62,000-member American Medical Student Association (AMSA) sought to end the pharma practice of gifts and free meals. Now pharma must report what it spends on doctors.