The public relations minefield that is Big Pharma

When I used to teach public relations classes on things like Reputation Management or Crisis Communications, I taught the old PR maxim about “depositing in the bank of goodwill” out there.  Simply put, the better you or your organization are at honourable citizenship on a day-to-day basis, the more public goodwill you’ll build up in this account, and the more others will be wiling to trust you.

And vice versa: the more slimy your ongoing behaviour, the less you can realistically expect anybody to trust you. Yes, even when you are telling the truth.

The good news is that, when your balance in the bank of goodwill is healthy, your chances of that trust remaining stable even if you do something bad are improved.  So if you should need to make a “withdrawal” one day when a crisis hits, you’ll have the social capital of public trust nicely tucked away in that bank.

It’s also why Phillip Ball – the London-based science journalist, former editor of Nature, and the author of Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything – is taking aim at Big Pharma, and particularly at British drug giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). Continue reading

Avandia: a very short history of a very bad drug

The drug giant GlaxoSmithKline’s controversial diabetes drug Avandia (generic name rosiglitazone) works by helping diabetics balance their blood-sugar levels. But since its inception, it has been found to increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes — and even death.

As many as 100,000 heart attacks, strokes, deaths and cases of heart failure may be directly attributed to Avandia since the drug was launched in 1999, according to FDA scientist Dr. David Graham.  Yet physicians are still prescribing the drug to nearly half a million people, which translates into approximately $900 million in annual sales for GSK.  How has this been allowed to happen? Let’s take a look at the history of this potentially lethal but still-legal drug, courtesy of PBS: Continue reading

Who’s running the show in industry-sponsored drug trials?

There is strong evidence that medical researchers’ financial ties to their industry funders may directly influence their published positions in supporting the benefit or downplaying the harm of the products they are “studying”. 

For example, there is often a demonstrated difference between internal drug company documents about the research trial results that they fund, and the articles reporting that research that end up in the medical journals that your doctor reads.  The New England Journal of Medicine has referred to this practice as ‘selective outcome reporting’.

But for the sake of clarity, let’s just call it ‘lying’.   Continue reading

When you use bad science to sell drugs

Whenever I feel like I don’t have quite enough aggravation in my life, I used to like checking out Stuart Laidlaw’s medical ethics column in the Toronto Star. For example, Stuart’s eagle eye once spotted a disturbing article about ‘marketing-based medicine’ published in the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry. It looked at the ever-so-slightly sleazy topic of data fishing.  This is what Big Pharma does when science is used improperly to help market their drugs.  This includes selective use of clinical trial results to suppress or spin negative results.

For the sake of clarity, let’s call this “lying”.

Another example of marketing-based medicine is the alarmingly dangerous practice of medical ghostwriting. This happens when a report that’s bought and paid for by the drug company to give a positive review of one of its products is then published in medical journals under the name of a respected academic who had little (if anything) to do with the actual journal article.  See also: Partners in Slime: Why You Should Be Alarmed About Medical Ghostwriting. Continue reading

Why is Big Pharma getting away with paying billions in criminal fines – but avoiding criminal charges?

Drug giant AstraZeneca has been working on a back room legal settlement deal with the U.S. government since last fall. And according to a New York Times investigation, the company has earmarked $520 million for the purpose.

According to the Times, the final arrangement will wrap up two federal investigations: one related to doctors who participated in clinical trials of the drug and another involved the company’s sales organization. The company allegedly misled both doctors and patients about the safety of its atypical anti-psychotic drug Seroquel, downplaying the known risks of weight gain and diabetes.

AstraZeneca has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

The drugmaker will pay $520 million in criminal fines and sign a corporate integrity agreement to settle probes into its marketing of the anti-psychotic drug. But the company will not face any criminal charges.   Continue reading

If only Avandia were more like Toyota

Poor Toyota.  The car maker has been forced to recall more than 8 million vehicles worldwide after news that at least 34 deaths have been linked to Toyota vehicle problems going back as far as 2004. But compare those 34 deaths with the more than 1,000 reports of patient deaths linked with the prescription drug Avandia in just one nine-month period last year, a death rate described by an Institute for Safe Medication Practices report as: “more than any other drug we monitor.” John Mack, editor of Pharma Marketing News, warns:

“If people are afraid to buy Toyotas, then based on average yearly death rates, they should be about 400 times more afraid to take Avandia.”   Continue reading