Monday, April 5, 2010

The Drug War

This story begins last fall, when Diana and I were returning from the North American Vegetarian Conference in Toronto Canada. We arrived at the airport for our flight to San Francisco quite early, which gave us ample time to do some serious people watching. When we reached our departure gate, I noticed a lively group of about 30 people who were having a great time while waiting for the same flight that we were on. The initial group mushroomed to about 60, by the time our flight began to board. They were rather a boisterous group, ranging in age from the mid twenties to the mid fifties.

I had made a number of assumptions about these well scrubbed Canadians. My first thought was that they were a group of academics on their way to some research conference. As it turned out, the group comprised the entire Canadian sales force for the Big Pharma, Astra Zeneca. They were going to San Francisco to attend the company’s annual sales meeting, in which all their new drugs were to be presented.

Being aware that one of their top selling drugs was the statin, Crestor, I was curious how the sales people might respond to my questions regarding the role of diet in reducing cholesterol. I immediately got into a conversation with my drug rep seat mate regarding her role in the company. She informed me that she called on Physicians to keep them ‘’informed’’ about Crestor. When I asked her about the role of diet and exercise in cholesterol management, she said that her company discussed these factors on their website. I had the sense that she didn’t want pursue the issue much further, and not wanting to appear too obnoxious, I shut up for the remainder of the flight.

Flash forward to this week’s front page story in the NY Times,’’ Plan to Widen Use of Statins Has Skeptics Cholesterol - Pills Aimed at Healthy People.’’ The FDA has approved new criteria for the use of Crestor last month for essentially asyptomatic people, and AstraZeneca is already planning to debut their new marketing and advertising campaign based on this dubious criteria. Crestor had sales of $4.5 billion last year, and at a retail price of $3.50 a tablet, the estimated 6.5 million potential additional consumers in this country, will certainly help their bottom line.

Crestor is not the only example of Big Pharma’s efforts to redefine guide lines in order to increase sales. Our pill popping culture provides the perfect substrate for them to expand their influence in the health care world. The majority of these ‘’new use’’ drugs are aimed at lifestyle conditions. Why eat well, exercise and stress manage, when you can take a pill, is their corporate mantra. It’s a perfect marriage, since many of us would rather take a pill than be proactive.

The only hope for us to get out of this quagmire, which is bankrupting us in so many ways, is to fight back with the facts. The present course is unsustainable, and we need to communicate this message to the general public in a much more effective way than we have. At this time, the corporate message is so far ahead of the public health message, that Las Vegas has taken this game off the board.

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