Tuesday, June 6, 2006

A Hat-Trick For Pharmaceutical Killing

Never ever write on the same subject twice in a row—unless, of course, it’s a continuum, a reinforcing of the commentary just laid out. Four years ago I wrote about Merck, knocking-off patients with Vioxx. Yesterday it was Pfizer and their apparent disregard for the lives of those who gulp down Celebrex.


Glaxoadvair400Today, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a piece by Marc Kaufman in the Washington Post about GlaxoSmithKline rolling the dice with asthma prescription drugs. GSK comes up snake-eyes four to five thousand times a year, killing their users. What's that, eleven a day? Incredibly, it’s not a pandemic, not (apparently) as news-worthy as half a dozen bird-flu deaths, but merely business as usual for pharmaceutical companies.


What was it Stalin said? “The death of a single man is a tragedy, the death of thousands is a news item.” So, that’s three news items in a row for American pharmaceutical companies, which qualifies in my book as a pharmaceutical hat-trick.


Are we stupid, or just inured by the ubiquity of corporate greed?


Kaufman points out in his article that

One of the long-lasting bronchodilators is Advair Diskus, made by GlaxoSmithKline. It brought in $3.4 billion last year for the company, making it the nation's fifth biggest-selling drug, according to IMS Health, which tracks health data.

Remarkably, a Stanford University analysis of some nineteen studies on the subject, claimed

"What we have here is a drug that increases the number of people who will die from the disease it is treating. The long-acting bronchodilators can help reduce symptoms for many people, but we think the price in terms of serious side effects and deaths is unacceptable."

GlaxoceoNot to GlaxoSmithKline CEO Jean-Pierre Garner, another wunderkind in the $10 million salary category currently running (or flogging) death at a profit.


More than 3.5 million patients use the GSK drug. In the new analysis, the authors estimated that Advair "may be responsible" for as many as 4,000 of the 5,000 asthma-related deaths each year in the United States.


Which is not to say that corporations are to be denied the making of money. That’s why they exist. But when the making of money conveniently screens off the byproduct of that profit, they become no different than chicken-processors, hiding the feathers, blood and guts, in order to plastic-wrap a gleaming product for the super-market cooler. Marketing is okay with chickens or, if not okay, then at least marginally acceptable.


GlaxoasthmaflowersWhat is not marginally acceptable is playing chicken with your or my daughter’s life, when she is in the throes of an asthma attack. Four or five thousand deaths doesn’t square with the advertising image of a young girl, asthma-free in a field of flowers.


What is criminally unacceptable is advertising these products, Merck’s Vioxx, Pfizer’s Celebrex or GlaxoSmithKline’s Advair and Serevent, directly to consumers. Hiding behind disclaimers is fraudulent. Encouraging an asthma sufferer to make a choice, a pharmaceutically self-serving choice, is the whole and only point of full-page ads in consumer magazines.


DoctorprescribingDoctors who are unwilling, or only marginally willing, to recommend the use of potentially lethal prescription drugs, are put in entirely another position when their patient comes in shaking an ad in their face, demanding access. “I explained the risks,” the doctor testifies in court.


Thus we are left with another hat trick--a dead child, a doctor off the hook and a pharmaceutical company banking billions. And all due to the modern wonders of ‘consumer advertising.’


America has come, tragically and painfully, to terms with some two and a half thousand military deaths in Iraq and a presidency may fail because of it. A single pharma-corporation is accepting nearly twice that total each and every year, not for a military purpose, not for security of the American homeland, not for any purpose but $3.4 billion in profit. $850,000 a death.


Most of that profit comes undone if prescription drugs are marketed as they once were, strictly to doctors. One can hardly allow society to abdicate its governance of corporations and still call it society. Standing down from that governance, shrugging our collective shoulders, because these dead children or fathers or grandmothers are not our children, fathers and grandmothers, is to break down all the morality that presumes to guide our business principles. Profit at any cost, particularly the cost of an acceptable death-rate, is too high a price to pay.


Where is your money invested and does the return on that investment put anyone you know at risk? 
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See Taking My Country Personally on my personal web site.