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An Inconvenient Moore
Any drug company, hospital, clinic, or health department that doesn't lay on extra staff in its communications office in the next few weeks is asking for trouble. I say this thinking about the imminent release of Michael Moore's latest opus Sicko, which hit the stage in Cannes on May 19 and for general release June 29.
What Fahrenheit 9/11 did for anti-Bush paranoiacs and Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth did for global warming junkies, Sicko will do for all those people who think that healthcare and the pharmaceutical industry is run by a global cabal, which means that everyone involved in either industry will be on the defensive.
Drug pricing. Medicare and drug plans. Drug safety. HMOs. Treatment delays. Medical errors. Hospital closures. Alternative therapies. Developing world diseases.
Each of these is a sore point with drug company officials, medical practitioners, hospital administrators, insurance companies, and government representatives, and that pain will only intensify under the harsh glare of a movie marquis.
In light of this, the recent guilty plea by Purdue Frederick and its President, Chief Legal Officer, and CMO on charges of misbranding OxyContin could not have come at a worse time. The $635.5-million fines will only fuel the fire of a public that already thinks it is being price-gouged at the local pharmacy—a public that is itching to find signs of deceit that rival the tobacco industry's claims that cigarettes were not addictive.
"Even in the face of warnings from health care professionals, the media, and members of its own sales force that OxyContin was being widely abused and causing harm to our citizens, Purdue, under the leadership of its top executives, continued to push a fraudulent marketing campaign that promoted Oxycontin as less addictive, less subject to abuse, and less likely to cause withdrawal," said United States Attorney John Brownlee.
For its part, the company described as "false" any suggestion that the plea of misbranding was linked to any misuse or diversion of OxyContin, saying that this was not the point of the U.S. Attorney's investigation. "The instructions contained in the prescribing information for the medication, which are approved by the FDA, have always contained express warnings and precautions about abuse, addiction, tolerance, and withdrawal," the statement added.
Unfortunately, as many before have learned before, the facts are only one part of the story—often the part about which few people care.
Following so quickly on the heels of stories like the Vioxx controversy and global disputes over patent protection and drug pricing in the developing world, the OxyContin story becomes that much bigger—another bundle of sticks at the feet of the industry, just when Michael Moore was walking by with a can of kerosene, looking for another witch to burn.
The healthcare and pharmaceutical systems of the United States are flawed. I think few will dispute that. But then, so are we all. (Oh, and this isn't just some Canadian bravado here…the Canadian healthcare system is plenty flawed too.)
But as I've said before, unlike other industries that are equally flawed, the ills of the healthcare and drug industries strike a louder chord with people because our health—and particularly that of our loved ones—is more important, more visceral to us than anything else. And even as we sit there, scarfing down double cheeseburgers and super-large fries, we are looking to the system to explain why we are so fat, why our children can't breathe, and why cancer rates are still so high.
No one (industry or individual) is to blame, but at the same time, no one is blameless. We're all going to have to learn to work together to solve these problems…consumers included.
In the meantime, prepare yourselves for the media frenzy that will ensue in the next few months. If the drug and health industries are lucky, maybe the movie will tank…but don't bet on it.
OUR READERS RESPOND
Well put. Most lay people don't realize that prescription drugs, by definition, are dangerous. If they weren't, anyone could buy them like a tube of toothpaste.
A lot of the problem is poor prescribing habits by physicians, who seem to be influenced more by drug company detail persons than medical journals. The problem is further compounded by the lack of therapeutic monitoring and progress toward of clinical goals. The vast majority of people who took Vioxx didn't need it and would have done just as well with older, over-the-counter medications. A pox on direct-to-consumer advertising.
Alan Hopefl, Pharm.D.