Pills and privilege
August 18th 2008, 15:28 | Bryan Hubbard
Drug companies enjoy a very privileged position among the industrial sectors. They are granted extraordinarily high levels of privacy and protection, non-drug competitors are not allowed to bring alternatives to market, especially in the area of cancer care, their relationship with doctors is protected by the Advertising Standards Authority and by the media, and their executives sit on many boards that control editorial output. If this were not enough, the pharmaceuticals also sponsor the largest network of lobby groups in the world that influence the thinking of governments everywhere.
Drug companies are not subject to the usual market forces, and can pretty much charge what they like for their drugs, especially if the drugs are new and still in patent. As the pay of their senior executives is shaped by the share price, and as the share price is, in part, determined by the profit line, it's not in anybody's interests to put a 'fair' price on a new drug.
As a result, cash-strapped health authorities such as the UK's National Health Service simply cannot afford the latest, innovative drugs. An organisation called NICE (National Institute for Clinical Excellence) has to make the tough decisions about what drugs to allow on the NHS, and what it has to leave off. It's a difficult place to be because it will inevitably make decisions that upset some group of patients, who may see some wonderful new compound as their only hope against an inexorable disease.
NICE's head, Sir Michael Rawlins, has been defending his position this week after calls that his organisation was barbaric for refusing a new kidney cancer drug onto the NHS list. He points out that the drugs could be sold for a tenth of their current price, and still leave a decent profit for the manufacturer.
Interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Sir Michael was told by the interviewer that the drug industry is there to make a profit. This is, of course, its primary motive, as it is for any industrial combine, and its chief objective is to produce a good return for the shareholder.
Again, nothing unusual there.
That being the case, could someone explain why a for-profit group - that puts shareholders and profits before the well-being of the sick - is granted so many privileges and protections?
Now it's clear what the primary motivation is, it's time these safeguards were removed, and that the pharmaceutical industry were treated like any other.