For more than three years, the big pharmaceutical companies have been spit-shining their image as mankind's saviors while simultaneously waging a legal battle to keep low-cost versions of lifesaving drugs from the millions of people dying of AIDS in Africa.
On Thursday, the 39 drug companies suing the South African government dropped their lawsuit. Typically, they're spinning it as a humanitarian gesture, but it really is the only way to extricate themselves from the public relations nightmare their coldblooded effort had become. You can see why they've never tried to develop a truth pill.
From AIDS activists who started protesting two years ago to Nelson Mandela, who this week called the lawsuit a "gross error ... that is completely wrong and must be condemned," the public outcry had reached a crescendo the industry could no longer afford to ignore.
This, after all, is the same industry that last year spent $1.7 billion on TV ads promoting its products and painting itself as a paragon of virtue and compassion.
Ironically, it was not long after I had seen for the umpteenth time Pfizer's heartstring-tugging TV spot proclaiming "Life is our life's work" that I heard the drug companies -- including Warner-Lambert, which merged with Pfizer last summer -- were waving the bloodstained white flag in Pretoria.
That it took the world turning on them -- and three long years of thousands of people dying -- to get them to drop their suit proves that the industry's collective slogan should be "Profit is our life's work."
And lucrative work it is. Last year, according to Fortune magazine, the pharmaceutical industry was the most profitable in America by far. This profitability, however, came with a human price tag.
In a series of investigative reports that just earned him a Pulitzer Prize, the Los Angeles Times' David Willman exposed the risks taken with the public's health by drug companies in their frenetic drive for ever-higher profits. He uncovered documents that reveal how Warner-Lambert, which produced the now-banned diabetes drug Rezulin, willfully ignored evidence of the drug's life-threatening liver toxicity, and even managed to get senior Food and Drug Administration officials to disregard the warnings of their own medical experts.
This collusion between the pharmaceutical industry, the FDA and the Congressional Oversight Committee -- which more often resembles the Congressional Turn-a-Blind-Eye Committee -- is becoming deadly. Literally. Nine drugs have been pulled off the market for safety reasons in the past four years after causing more than a thousand deaths and countless serious injuries.
And according to drug safety expert Thomas Moore, these numbers only scratch the surface of the suffering. "I believe the number of people injured by these drugs," he told me, "is grossly underestimated because only a small fraction of cases are reported. We have a flawed system that gives drug companies the benefit of the doubt, and as a result, thousands of people are dying."
This lack of real government oversight is compounded by the industry's aggressive marketing tactics -- which make it seem like these powerful drugs are just like any other consumer product.
It's a misperception with lethal side effects. Just as Hollywood knows how to make a blockbuster movie "open big," the pharmaceutical companies have learned how to build interest in their latest blockbuster drug. As a result, new, relatively untested drugs are being sampled by millions of people soon after they are approved, so when something goes wrong, the fallout is widespread.
A particularly loathsome example of this involves Duract, a painkiller that research proved could damage the liver. But under pressure from Wyeth-Ayers, Duract's manufacturer, the FDA approved the drug anyway, with a warning to physicians about its toxicity. The drug company wasn't about to let a little thing like fatal liver damage get in its way.
It pushed the flawed drug so effectively that more than 2.5 million prescriptions were written in the 10 months before Duract started racking up liver-related deaths and was yanked off pharmacy shelves. As they say in that other kind of drug ad, "Speed Kills."
But bamboozling the American public on the way to massive profits only earns you a slap on the wrist. Glaxo Wellcome was reprimanded a remarkable 14 times for misleading consumers about its asthma drugs Flovent and Flonase. You'd think they'd have gotten the message after rebuke No. 4. Or 9. Or 12. And the FDA recently wagged its finger -- for the third time in 14 months -- at Pfizer and Pharmacia for running deceptive TV spots touting Celebrex, their jointly marketed arthritis drug.
Hoping to explore this less-than-stellar track record further, I put in a call to Pfizer and was transferred to the company's Department of Corporate Reputation. I kid you not, that's what it's called. When I asked about obtaining a copy of some of its ads, I was told this wouldn't be possible because of my "tight deadline."
I guess 36 hours wasn't enough time for anyone to fax me the script of a 30-second ad that seems to air every 60 seconds. I understand -- I'd also be embarrassed if my ads overstated product effectiveness or contained the hyperdefensive tag line "We have fathers, sisters and best friends, too." Some of those best friends are apparently employed at the FDA.
And why not -- it's easy to bond with government officials who are ignoring warnings from their own medical specialists and issuing toothless scoldings to the industry.
It's now abundantly clear that the decision to allow drug companies to inundate consumers with ads for prescription drugs was a serious mistake. It should be reversed, but that's easier said than done. The industry has covered its legislative flank by making extremely generous contributions to elected officials on both sides of the aisle -- more than $18.6 million during the last campaign alone.
But the industry's surrender in South Africa shows that public pressure and grass-roots protests really work. So let's build on this victory and rid our airwaves of the plague of prescription drug ads.