A no-punches-pulled indictment of the pharmaceutical industry in the United States.
Big Pharma has been making money but doing harm ever since it shifted a quarter-century ago from research to marketing, asserts Petersen, a business reporter for the New York Times. She paints a black-and-white portrait of drug companies as bad guys, obsessed with making money and willing to use shady, if not illegal means to do so. These “medicine merchants,” she charges, sell their products with slick television ads aimed at adults and appealing cartoon characters aimed at children; their advertising is ubiquitous, showing up everywhere from NASCAR races and state fairs to churches and spiritual guides. Big Pharma has gained unprecedented power over the practice of medicine, Petersen contends, spending enormous amounts of money to entice doctors into prescribing its products and turning medical continuing-education courses into virtual sales bazaars. The drug companies now have “a stranglehold on medical science.” They form alliances with universities; research studies are paid for by the industry; and articles and editorials ghostwritten by PR firms appear over the names of academics. Petersen names specific pharmaceutical companies, executives and drugs, devoting entire chapters to the marketing of Detrol, Ritalin, Neurontin and Zantac. The harm they do to the public is not just economic, she notes; Americans spend more on medical care than on housing or food, and the resulting over-medicalization poses health risks of its own. In addition, as companies concentrate on blockbuster lifestyle drugs like Viagra and copycat medications for chronic conditions (one more statin to lower cholesterol), much-needed drugs for rare diseases are not being developed.
Petersen aims her barbs directly at Big Pharma, but the stories she tells about the companies’ relations with physicians and scientists willing to be bought makes it clear that there’s plenty of blame to go around. For more specific information about the marketing of antidepressants, see Charles Barber’s forthcoming Comfortably Numb: How Psychiatry Medicated a Nation (2008).