The pharmaceutical industry has become an easy target for critics, and that negativity is spilling over into public polls, garnering a bad reputation for the entire industry.
In a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, released February 25, 70% of the 1,200 Americans surveyed said, "Pharmaceutical companies are most concerned about making profits, and they put profits ahead of people."
On the issue of trustworthiness, pharmaceutical companies were ranked seventh in a list of nine industries, less trustworthy than HMOs, but more trustworthy than oil companies and tobacco companies. This, in spite of the fact that the pharmaceutical industry is the most philanthropic industry in the U.S., according to The 2004 Corporate Contributions Report by The Conference Board.
Why the disparity? At some level, "There's a traditional public reaction model at work here. The public wants access to better drugs to treat diseases, but they don't like the drug companies as a whole," notes Jenny Moede, senior vp, Waggener Edstrom Bioscience (www.wagged.com).
"Frankly," Moede says, "the drug companies have had too much financial success for the American public. People begin assuming that financial success is the only motive of these companies, and that's unseemly."
Furthermore, Robin Hogen, vp of public affairs, Purdue Pharma (www.purduepharma.com), says, "There is a small, vocal group in Washington, D.C., that has seized on this as a populist argument," saying that pharmaceutical companies are profiteering on the misfortune of others.
"But," Moede continues, "with the exception of a few major biotech companies, the biotech industry hasn't achieved widespread, consistent financial success. So the general public translates this to they must be motivated by something other than money, like human health and wellness.'
"As more and more biotech companies achieve profitability and market traction, their ability to maintain a balance between meeting shareholder demand and prioritizing the well-being of their patients through scientific and care advancements will be critical."
Another reason for the disdain is that overall healthcare costs tend to be invisible, reimbursed, often directly, by third-party payers, while prescriptions may be paid for, at least initially, by patients. "It goes to a fundamental problem: Everyone wants the best healthcare in the world, but wants somebody else to pay for it," Hogen says.
Recent news hasn't enhanced the industry's image, either. The shortage of flu vaccine last autumn, followed by Merck's Vioxx withdrawal, conflicts of interests at the National Institutes of Health, the March withdrawal of Biogen-Elan's Tysabri, an FDA warning regarding "potentially life-threatening muscle damage" among Asian patients using AstraZeneca's Crestor, and the seizure of GlaxoSmithKline's Paxil CR and Avandamet tablets over GMP violations all contribute to increasingly skeptical consumers.
"I don't think people see biotech in the same light as pharma," notes Tony Russo, CEO of Noonan Russo, a division of Euro RSCG Life PR (www.eurorscg.com). He may be right. "The response to biotech is overwhelmingly positive," according to Michael Werner, chief of policy, BIO (www.bio.org). "Our message, the promise of biotech, is being heard."