Mark Dolliver’s Takes: Big Pharma Is Shifty

When people bad-mouth the drug companies—and when do they not?—the word “greedy” figures prominently in their vocabulary. To focus on that one line of complaint, though, is to miss the breadth of public hostility: Consumers think Big Pharma is shifty as well as greedy.

Polling conducted by Harris Interactive for the Pharmaceutical Safety Institute documents the degree to which people don’t trust the industry to disclose bad news about its wares. Asked how confident they are that drugmakers “will eventually disseminate all information—positive or negative—that they have regarding the safety of their drugs,” few said “extremely” (4 percent) or “very” (10 percent). Thirty percent said they’re “fairly” confident, with another 27 percent “somewhat” so. But even such lukewarm trust was more than could be mustered by the 29 percent who declared themselves “not at all” confident of such disclosures. The numbers were nearly identical when people were asked how confident they are that companies will release news of adverse reactions to any of their drugs “as soon as they have such information.”

Given such distrust, one might expect consumers to shun direct-to-consumer sales pitches for prescription drugs. Instead, the survey shows many find such ads useful. Fifty-one percent said the ads “encourage me to ask additional questions when I visit my physician.” (Thirteen percent disagreed, 30 percent neither agreed nor disagreed and the rest said the query didn’t apply to them.) Similarly, 44 percent said the ads “make me more knowledgeable about treatments that I previously did not know about.” Despite suspicions of industry willingness to come clean about problems with drugs, 42 percent said direct-to-consumer ads “provide useful information on the risks of using prescription medications.” The moral is that consumers seem more wary of what drug companies fail to say than of what they do say.

A separate poll, conducted by Rodale’s Prevention, Men’s Health and Women’s Health magazines with assistance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, confirms that consumers are eager for more information about prescription drugs. Sixty-one percent want to know how a medicine’s effectiveness compares with that of other drugs; 66 percent want information on how a drug interacts with other medications.