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Commentary

Drugs companies are not on the same level as arms dealers
Andrew Jack, Financial Times, 10-15-05

Andrew Jack points out that the public perception of the pharmaceutical industry, especially in films like The Constant Gardner, has passed the point of fair criticism and gone straight into unhelpful caricature.

There is no doubt that drugs companies have indulged in some dubious ethical practices over the years. Providing cheap medicines to the poor has never been part of their core mission. But after a remarkable few months in which more than half a dozen books have been published on the evils of the sector, with titles such as The Big Fix, On The Take and Selling Sickness, you have to wonder whether the mercury is rising a little too high. Public reactions to The Constant Gardener, and a likely Michael Moore film in the months ahead, almost guarantee that pharmaceutical executives will be self-prescribing more anti-depressants.

We now all know that Vioxx, Merck's over-sold painkiller withdrawn last year, may have contributed to the death by heart attack of significant numbers of patients, although scientists and lawyers will argue for years over the benefit of hindsight and the influence of other factors. Yet millions have benefited from recently launched drugs, including Herceptin for breast cancer and Exubera, the inhaled insulin treatment for diabetes. Merck and GlaxoSmithKline's vaccines could soon prevent cervical cancer. The antiviral Tamiflu may save many lives in the event of an avian flu pandemic. …
If the drugs companies have sinned by neglect, they at least sell products that improve human health. That hardly puts them on the level of tobacco companies, let alone arms dealers. Let us hope that if The Constant Gardener does become a blockbuster, it not only stirs a public debate and motivates the drugs companies to do more, but pushes governments and others to reflect on their respective roles.

We certainly agree, and hope that Mr. Jack’s article injects some common sense back into a public debate that has become wildly overheated.



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