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Pharmaceutical Marketing: Media, Critics Honing In On Pharma-Advocacy Organization Alliances
Over the past decade or so, pharmaceutical companies have worked with advocacy organizations and medical societies on a range of projects designed to raise awareness of illness and educate physicians on issues relating to products they manufacture.  These “cause alliances” have been win-win relationships for all involved because they provide non-profits with valuable funding for ongoing projects and help to draw medical and public attention to issues drug firms are concerned about. 

There are some indications that pharmaceutical companies will develop more cause alliances as they seek to educate the public about illnesses their drugs are designed to treat.  Public relations firms are sometimes called upon to serve as liaisons between the drug firms and third parties.  However, in recent years, the media and parts of the medical establishment have been increasingly critical of cause alliances.  Some view them as examples of “disease mongering,” or shaping the medical environment to increase awareness and sales of expensive medications.  Just this week, journalists in the United States and Europe have been sharply critical of two cause alliances sponsored by Roche and Eli Lilly. 

•    On Wednesday, the Guardian reported on the controversy surrounding a European anti-cancer campaign, Cancer United, sponsored by Roche.  Michel Coleman from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine is quoted in the article.  He said:  "Governments will no doubt be pressed to fund a big increase in expenditure on cancer drugs - on the entirely spurious grounds that such an increase has been proven to increase national survival rates.” He is also highly critical of a study that is at the center of Cancer United’s push.  It indicates that patient survival is linked to the amount of money governments spend on medications. 

•    Today, the New York Times focused on a New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) article that blasts Eli Lilly and Company for developing the Surviving Sepsis campaign.  Lilly founded the program partly because it manufactures a controversial anti-sepsis product called Xigris.  In addition to developing the campaign, Eli Lilly was the sole sponsor of guidelines that favorably positioned Xigris for the management of sepsis.  The authors of the NEJM article argue:

“When properly formulated and applied, practice guidelines and performance standards hold the promise of improving patients’ outcomes. Professional societies and other stakeholders must work together to promote a consistent guideline-development process, a robust rating system for guidelines that is applicable to all subspecialties, and a policy that prohibits the pharmaceutical and medical-device industries from directly or indirectly funding or influencing practice standards.”

Judy Kay Moore, a spokesperson for Lilly, responded to the criticism.  According to NPR, she said that the company “did not mastermind the ethics task force or steer the guideline-writing process.  And it was only a coincidence, Moore says, that the ethics task force and the Surviving Sepsis Campaign used the same P.R. firm, Belsito and Company.  ‘We did not intend for or direct Belsito and Company to act on Lilly's behalf in this regard,’ Moore says. ‘Lilly did not recommend that [the task force] hire Belsito. And Lilly gave a grant to these groups and off they went to do their work.’"  Click here to read Lilly's response to the NEJM article. 

These two incidents, which are only the most recent, clearly indicate that while DTC advertising gets the most attention, critics are also looking at how pharmaceutical companies work with public relations firms and non-profit organizations on projects relating to products they manufacture. 

Closing The Growing Credibility Gap

Not many people would be surprised to learn that pharmaceutical companies are sponsoring projects in disease states they have an interest in.  Drug firms also develop relationships with non-profits because doing so helps to bolster their reputations.  Most importantly, third party endorsement helps to lend credibility to Big Pharma’s arguments about why its products are needed and useful.

However, growing negative scrutiny of these efforts threatens to significantly damage the reputation of non-profits that are working with pharmaceutical companies.  Over time, these organizations may lose credibility with the public and their stakeholders, which will ultimately harm public health.

What may help is more transparency from pharmaceutical companies and third party organizations engaging in cause alliances -- especially when it involves medical guideline development.  This will help to defuse criticism and provide evidence that these activities are worthwhile and that non-profits are indeed operating independently. 

For example, some drug firms are taking steps to ensure that their marketing departments are not involved in providing unrestricted educational grants to third parties working in areas they have a financial interest in.  Certain medical non-profits have developed very elaborate systems to ensure that pharma-sponsored projects are truly independent.  However, the public and media are largely unaware of these efforts. 

Proactive communication about why cause alliances were developed, who is sponsoring a campaign, the procedures used to make treatment recommendations and other issues may help to assuage doubts about cause alliances.  It may also preserve the credibility and reputations of both third party organizations and pharmaceutical companies.  While people will still be skeptical of cause alliances, they will have the information they need to judge them on their merits. 

2 Comments/Trackbacks

Great article, Fard! I just found out the inside word that the FDA and the pharmaceutical industry have cut a deal whereby the agency would get $40,000 to $50,000 for each prescription drug ad campaign. Given how many ads are aired on TV, that would amount to some big bucks for the FDA. And what will they do with the money? They will hire more staffers to review ads promptly (within 45 days of submission) so they can make it to your TV set even faster than before. Gee, thanks FDA!

All these DTC ads are pushing new drugs when the old drugs or the generics are much, much less expensive. I’ve seen ads on TV for Caduet. It has two ingredients. One is Amlodipine and the other is Atorvastatin. With my RxDrugCard I can get 30 tablets of Amlodipine for $9 and 30 tablets of Simvastatin for $9. I’ll bet they are charging more than $18 for this new drug! The unthinking public is going to pressure their doctors into giving them something just because it’s new, when something old or generic would do the job for cheaper.

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