Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Cross of Gold 3: Follow the Money

A Pfizer marketing executive defects! Peter Rost writes in the LA Times that drug companies are overcharging American consumers, particularly elderly people on Medicare, and people without insurance. Insurance companies and the VA negotiate lower prices with the drug companies, as do the government-financed or regulated health care systems in the other wealthy countries. That's why it's so much cheaper to re-import drugs from Canada or Europe. (Here's the link, registration required: Peter Rost

But there's more to the story. The drug manufacturers claim that they need to charge Americans those high prices because it's so expensive to develop new drugs, and they can't afford to come up with all those lifesaving medications if they don't take it out of grandma and grandpa. It is to laugh. They spend more on marketing than they do no developing new drugs -- and a lot of the drug development they do is just finding slight variations on old drugs, that they can market as improvements, in order to keep patented compounds on the market that they can charge monopoly prices for.

Even so, these new drugs aren't necessarily really improvements at all. Vioxx and Celebrex -- the so-called COX 2 inhibitors -- do the same job as aspirin. They were supposed to be an improvement because they have a lower risk of gastrointestinal bleeding, which can affect some people who take high doses of aspirin for a long time. But the companies marketed these drugs as miraculous new treatments for osteoarthritis, showing all those happy, health-looking old folks doing Tai Chi and dancing like Fred Astaire on TV, so that most people thought they work better than aspirin and its cousins. They don't, but they cost about 20 times as much. What is worse, they covered up evidence that Cox 2 inhibitors increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Now, the truth is that these drugs probably are an appropriate choice for people who have debilitating arthritis, are at low risk for cardiovascular disease, and have experienced side effects from aspirin-like drugs. But they aren't the right choice for most people. If the drug companies told the truth, however, and didn't deceptively mass-market these compounds, they wouldn't have been major blockbusters that enabled them to make huge profits for their stockholders and executives.

More on marketing later . . .

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