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Commentary

The Companies Everyone Loves to Hate
Roger Bate, Wall Street Journal, 9-16-05

Hollywood has a few stalwart villains that it habitually relies on to vent its spleen, but corporations must be the all-time favorite tinseltown punching bag. Roger Bate outlines why the pharmaceutical industry, in particular, has become a popular target of late and why it is likely to remain in the crosshairs through his review of the film adaptation of John le Carré’s “The Constant Gardner”:

The pharmaceutical industry entered Hollywood's crosshairs with films like "The Fugitive" and "Mission Impossible II." But if anything the movie business has followed public opinion rather than led it.
In the latest Gallup industry poll, only the oil and gas industry showed a worse image rating than pharmaceuticals. In a 1997 Harris poll, 79% of respondents said that drug companies did a "good job" of serving their customers, but last year a majority of Americans said they did a "bad job." The percentage of adults who say that they can trust what drug companies say in their advertising has decreased by almost half in seven years. …
Ultimately, drug companies are caught in an impossible situation. Good health is seen as a basic human right, and the idea that a corporation would charge you for your rights, let alone deny them to you because you can't afford its product, is seen as morally reprehensible. Mr. le Carré says that he needed to warn people about the "corrupting power of pharmaceutical companies when they operate in emerging countries," but Merck and Pfizer are not in the business of testing drugs they know do not work or of avoiding regulations because they want to harm the poor.

In short, we have a high-profile industry selling a product that it touts as indispensable to a public that thinks it ought to be free. The disconnect is in the public’s assumption that health care is in fact “free,” a myth that is encouraged by the U.S. reliance on employer-provided health insurance. Shifting more responsibility to consumers for routine health care, along with deregulating health insurance markets, would greatly improve the image of the industry by empowering consumers as purchasers rather than passive clients—as they now are.

But the industry should also embrace transparency and recognize that the public needs to become much more knowledgeable about the value—and limitations and risks—of prescription drugs. Canny consumers, after all, don’t often complain about their own purchases.



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