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Drug firms have strange marketing strategies

Posted: Tuesday, September 05, 2000

Just imagine if General Motors or Ford aired expensive TV commercials which contained lines such as, "In some cases our cars may explode, fail to start, veer off cliffs, catch on fire or stall in the left lane of the FDR Drive."

Or try to picture a General Electric or Whirlpool commercial that says, "Since under certain conditions the doors may fall off our refrigerators, they are not recommended for use in households with small children."

You can't.

But television has been saturated with commercials for prescription drugs this summer, and if you've been watching you've become aware of all the nasty side effects that can happen to you. In cheerfully delivered lines, these commercials warn of such disgusting symptoms as rectal itching, vaginal dryness, liver damage, projectile vomiting, blurred vision and intestinal cramps. It can't be the drug companies' intention that people will run to their doctors and demand to be given cramps or say "please doctor, make me vomit." It's not that the drug companies want to nauseate us with these graphic descriptions delivered in the dinner hour. Surely this isn't a stealth campaign to scare kids so they'll stop using hard drugs.

No, it all has to do with some meddlesome federal regulation about disclosure of side effects in advertising for prescription medicines. We are jolted by these messages because for years we've been used to commercials for over-the-counter medicines that promise nothing but blissful relief from such cures as Pepto-Bismol, Excedrin and the ubiquitous Preparation H. There are even those of us old enough to remember Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, much advertised in radio commercials featuring a piteous woman whining for relief from mysterious symptoms that were never quite explained. They were a forerunner of the more recent "I've fallen and I can't get up" genre of annoying commercial.

Nothing says more about the economics of the pharmaceutical industry than that it wants to sell us pills so badly it will violate all the laws of sound marketing, go on TV and, if necessary, bad-mouth its own products. If you want to know why prescription drug prices are so high, I guess this helps explains it, but only partly.

Another huge cost factor for drug companies is campaign contributions. These expenditures will not cure a single disease but they may help persuade Congress to resist legislation that would force drug companies to provide drugs for Medicare beneficiaries at negotiated prices. Drug companies hate the idea of anybody, especially the government, putting a cap on what they can charge for prescribed drugs. This explains why they are expected to spend $13.8 million on campaign contributions in the 2000 election cycle, 147 percent more than in the 1994 cycle. The figures are helpfully provided by Public Citizen's Congress Watch.

Congress Watch also reports that the pharmaceutical industry has, by a wide margin, chosen which party it wants to win the 2000 election. Members of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the main industry trade group, have so far reserved 77 percent of their contributions for Republicans.

As a sport, trashing drug companies has become like going to one of those game farms where they run a tame lion past you and let you shoot its head off. To have spent so lavishly and come up with such a dreadful reputation seems to be a pathetic return on an immense investment. But drug companies are not stupid. They know that when one of them comes up with a definitive cure for cancer, especially one that doesn't cause rectal itching, we will all be immensely pleased. This is precisely why drug companies say they have to charge so much for pills -- so they can develop drugs that will save our lives. Meanwhile, they waste precious money advertising cures for toenail fungus.

What I am suggesting is we must cherish and encourage our pharmaceutical companies, wish the best for their research efforts, hope they remain profitable, not do anything to injure them while all the time maintaining a healthy and cynical vigilance against their efforts to influence the outcome of our elections or the shape of our health care system.

Robert Reno is a columnist for Newsday.



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