Big Pharma

Blogger PZ Myers occasionally makes reference to his disdain for comedian Bill Maher. This disdain stems largely from Maher’s cynicism aimed at western medicine.

The Rationally Speaking Podcast jumped on a similar topic with this past week’s episode, when they discussed some of the dangers that can come about when a celebrity who is otherwise not qualified to speak on certain topics maintains an opinion about which he or she has no expertise. Among the celebrities they mentioned in this capacity are:

— Jenny McCarthy, the former Playboy playmate who famously blamed vaccines for her son’s autism, basing her entire campaign on an extremely flawed study. There is a website that literally does a “body count” attributable to this campaign.

Steven Hawking, who dismisses philosophy for how little it has had to offer to science in recent decades

— Bill Maher, for his statements on medicine.

I like Bill Maher. From what I have seen of his statements on medicine, I see three general trends in his statements:

    1. A general belief that the government bureaucrats at the Food and Drug Administration aren’t doing their job properly
    2. A sense that certain diseases are diagnosed too frequently
    3. The marketing tactics of pharmaceutical companies

Let’s talk about point number 2 first. Maybe we are diagnosing diseases more often than we might have once done. I’m not convinced that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Especially among childhood diseases and disorders, it’s certainly possible that an increase in diagnosis is tied in with a better understanding of the disease and disorder. If we had current knowledge and/or technology a hundred years ago, I’m guessing that current rates of diagnosis probably would have roughly compared with what we see today.

Point 1 is interesting. During the years of the Bush administration, I readily concede that I would have believed that line of thought. Bush was known for nominating cronies into positions of power, most of whom had the interests of the industries from which they came in mind, rather than the interests of the public as a whole. With that kind of leadership, the thought that, say, a lobbyist for pharmaceutical interests would have wielded too much clout in terms of influencing public policy coming from the FDA. A quick google search of “Bush adminstration FDA” reveals countless examples of articles, from multiple independent sources, corroborating this perception. (Not that Google, in and of itself, is sufficient justification for anything).

I’m not so sure how true that still is, and, not coincidentally, Maher has eased off on this particular piece of rhetoric in the past couple of years.

The third point is the one that intrigues me the most. I’m not trying to make an argument with regard to the efficacy of any drug sold by any pharmaceutical company; I’m simply not qualified to make that judgment. I will say, however, that, if I ever see a commercial that informs me that I should “ask [my] doctor about” whatever medicine being hawked in that 30-second spot, I can pretty much guarantee you that I won’t.

And that’s not because I’m not interested in improving my health or otherwise helping the world to live longer or anything like that. It’s because of the advertisement itself. Without putting too fine a point on things, if I can’t walk into a store and buy a medicine from my pharmacist without a prescription, I don’t think I’m the correct target audience for the marketing campaign associated with that medicine.

That’s not to say that medicines shouldn’t be marketed. But if it’s only available by prescription, then the marketing should be aimed at the doctors who would prescribe it, the pharmacists who would dispense it, and the nurses who would hand it out. Let them know what the drug is supposed to do, what the side-effects are, and what the potential hazardous interactions are. That’s their job: to understand it. I don’t want or need to understand it.

When I see those ads, the only thing I see is unnecessary costs. Costs that could go into researching new drugs. Or even better yet, costs that, if eliminated, could lower the price of the drug itself.

Bill Maher has, on more than one occasion, illustrated the inanity of medical marketing by poking fun at Restless Legs Syndrome. It’s my understanding that the first drugs aimed at combatting RLS were actually originally intended to be a treatment for Parkinson’s Disease and, well, the drug didn’t work as well as had been hoped or expected. It makes good business sense that if you spend all of that money towards R&D for a product that doesn’t work, that you try to cut your losses and find something that it will do successfully. (Post-It Note Pads are a great example of this; turns out that the glue they use on the back of those sticky-notes wasn’t as strong as 3M had originally intended so they sought another use for it.)

But there’s something about the ads for RLS that almost seems counterintuitive. RLS is a legitimate condition tat was turned almost into its own punch line thanks to the way we’ve been marketed to.

So, yeah, I’m a bit cynical when it comes to the way drugs are marketed. That doesn’t make them unnecessary but the marketing itself creates more problems than solutions.

And that doesn’t do the medical industry any justice.

So when a comedian makes a statement against the way western medicine is run, is that really a bad thing?

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One response to “Big Pharma

  1. *cheers*  

    Pharmaceutical marketing bothers me, a lot.  Something about it reminds me of political campaigns, though I’m not certain if the connection there is just the fact that they both piss me off.  

    It might be that they both seem like an attempt to capitalize on fears born out of lack of information.  I don’t want to say ignorance.  The word fits but it implies a willful lack of knowledge and since I believe that 1) Our declining education system is partially to blame, and 2) Politicians and Big Corporations respectively want people ignorant and easily manipulated.  I don’t think naive applies unless you are a child or have never heard of libraries or newspapers.  

    Anyway… I wanted to mention the marketing of “Alternative Medicine” and New Age type cures.  The George Hrab song, “Skeptic” sums it up entertainingly.  

    “What is the moral that we all must learn
    Especially those others (of us?) with money to burn
    Before your eyes widen at the book on the shelf, think:
    Is he helping you,
    Or is he helping himself?”

    While I do admire the efficacy of the placebo effect, I get a sick to my stomach thinking about people being afraid of western medicine while at the same time trusting their health and wealth to charismatic charlatans who know damned well that their remarkable new age cancer cure (or whatever) is bullshit.  Can the placebo effect cure cancer?  Some individuals immune system might be able to do it but not enough to legitimize the danger that sort of claim puts people in.

    Know what I mean?

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