Taking the Blue Pill – BBC Shills for Major Drug Firms

September 1, 2012

It’s amazing what people will wilfully ignore when powerful interests are at stake. Take the pharmaceutical industry, for example. This morning, I flicked on the radio, to hear Radio 4’s Justin Webb interviewing a couple of people about the cost of drug trials and drug development in general. The gist of the segment was that trial costs are high and rising, academics are finding it hard to obtain funding for trials, impacting future treatment of cancers (in particular) and that something needed to be done. So far, so good. But Webb then decided to shift the discussion. Instead, he mused, of enforcing low prices for essential treatments, which might put off drug companies from developing next generation antibiotics, Webb suggested that we might consider paying more for our drugs, so that pharmaceutical firms can fund trials of newer treatments. This was his tack for the remainder of the segment, amounting, in effect, to a repeated demand that drug firms be paid more – and that this pay rise would be in our long-term interest.

What’s wrong with this logic, and Webb’s rhetorical strategy? A lot. Aside from ethical questions about who should pay for life saving treatment, there is no economic case for handing over more public money to drug firms. Although you’d never learn it from listening to Webb drone on, pharmaceutical firms are immensely profitable, even in times of recession. The largest firm, Glaxo Smithkline, reported profits of £1.9 billion in 2011. Last year, the second largest drug firm, Astra Zeneca, reported big profits, and remains profitable despite a slump in 2012. The third-placed firm, Shire, also saw profits rise as did Pfizer, Roche, Eisai – you get the picture. Just like many multi-national firms, the big drug companies are profit machines, cutting jobs and shutting research centres, making research plans based on their patent portfolio, and bilking taxpayers around the world to whatever extent they are able.

With that in mind, it’s depressing to hear widely heard journalists like Webb suggest that it makes sense to shovel more money into their corporate coffers. In reality, firms would try their hardest to prevent such money feeding back into R&D, unless that R&D is likely to supplement their product range and market positions. They would much rather salt it away into executive pay, tax havens and – possibly – share dividends, which is, after all, precisely what they are set up to do. They actually need to be replaced by public interest institutions, not for profits with a mandate to develop necessary treatments and maintain R&D programs across the country. This would be backed by many academics and patients alike. But solutions like that are shrouded in darkness, as far as run-of-the-mill journalism is concerned.

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One Response to “Taking the Blue Pill – BBC Shills for Major Drug Firms”

  1. Don Urquhart Says:

    Justin Webb’s son suffers from type 1 diabetes so might be expected to favour subsidising pharmaceutical companies to find cures for such diseases.


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