Do drug companies and the pharma industry deserve to be villains?

by Michael Kirsch, MD

Demonizing the pharmaceutical industry has become a parlor game for many who enjoy the challenge of shooting at an oversized target. Scapegoating Big Pharma? Now, that takes guts.

Never mind the gazillions they spend on research and development to create tomorrow’s treatments for cancer, arthritis, depression, infectious diseases, heart attacks and strokes. I know that drug industry executives are not all eagle scouts whose mission is solely to save humanity. But, they are not an evil enemy that we need to contain like the “swine flu” pandemic. Sure, they make a profit, and they deserve to. Drugs cost multiple millions of dollars to develop, and most of them never make it to market. Those that do, after years of testing and F.D.A. review, can be summarily shut down when unexpected serious adverse reactions are suspected. In these cases, there may be no actual proof that the medicines were responsible for the ‘side effect’.

I’m not suggesting that we demand airtight proof before issuing drug warnings, only that we beware of what happens if drug company profits can be decimated with the stroke of a pen. Playing rough with the drug companies may appeal to our populist sensibilities, but it can go too far and stifle innovation.

Drug companies need the promise of large profits if they are to take the risks inherent in developing new and novel medicines for all of us. What other business would invest in a new product or technology without the potential for substantial financial gain? Before we advocate price controls for medicines or shortening intervals of patent protection, consider the side effects of this clumsy approach. If we hit Big Pharma too hard, then they will play it safe and churn out lots of drugs that we don’t really need.

Which would you rather they invest in? Another drug for heartburn that is no better than all the others on the shelf, or a vaccine to prevent cancer?

If they succeed in the latter endeavor, I hope they earn hundreds of millions of dollars. This will still be less than the number of lives they will save.

Michael Kirsch is a gastroenterologist who blogs at MD Whistleblower.

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