Guest Post by Olivia Morrissey, Future Journalist
Americans who have turned on a television, flipped through a magazine, strolled past a bus stop or driven under a billboard have seen them. They seep into our everyday lives like a disease before symptoms even emerge. We can recognize the familiar faces and taglines they employ. Many of us accept them as viable resources, should we ever need them. These mysterious, seemingly harmless aspects of life are pharmaceutical drug advertisements. Though they may seem a part of the wallpaper of our daily living, they wield a heavy influence on consumer decisions about personal health. As Joseph Dumit’s book, Drugs for Life, suggests, pharmaceutical companies have created a lucrative empire by exerting great influence on the highly personal question, “Am I sick?”
An Internet search of the words “pharmaceutical company scandals” retrieves an alarmingly high amount of results. The large pharmaceutical companies who make up the “Big Pharma” ring have been involved in billion dollar lawsuits and abhorrent scandals, many of which involve unreported side effects and “off-label marketing,” or the promotion of drugs for unapproved uses.
GlaxoSmithKline was one such company, which in July of 2012 was involved in one of the largest healthcare fraud settlements in the history of the United States. The case concerns ten drugs, including Paxil, Wellbutrin, Avandia and Advair. The company pled guilty to promoting two of the drugs, antidepressants Paxil and Wellbutrin, for unapproved uses, including treatment of children and adolescents. The company conceded to charges that it did not report data and made unsupported safety claims about its diabetes drug, Avandia. GlaxoSmithKline paid a reported $3 billion in settlement claims and agreed to be monitored by government officials for five years. The company’s chief executive officer, Andrew Witty, issued a statement saying, “We have learnt from the mistakes that were made. When necessary, we have removed employees who have engaged in misconduct.”
This bland and dismissive statement does little to account for the severe and arguably deliberate misconduct of the company. Laying the blame on “a few bad apples” within GlaxoSmithKline is meant to restore credibility, but also serves as desperate attempt to save face in a viciously competitive market. Drugs for Life gives the reader a closer look into this market and the players who drive its relentless activity. As I read Dumit’s research into the often hidden world of pharmaceutical companies and their familiar products, I was struck by the devious practices of pharmaceutical drug marketing, and also the mechanical approach to promoting at times life-saving medication to people. Advertisements are directed at specific, predisposed demographics, and generalize consumers as uneducated, illiterate and easily swayed. Through deep-seated personalization and uncertainty, drug brand loyalty is cultivated. As evidenced by the prevalence and widespread knowledge of these advertisements, this approach seems to be working. But I would posit that it is sorely unethical. The lack of respect and the aim to manipulate consumers is underhanded and forebodes future health problems as a result of over-medicating. The mission to change this practice does not lie in economically conscious pharmaceutical companies. It lies in the accurate and objective education and dissemination of information regarding health and proper use of medications.