WASHINGTON, May 10 (UPI) -- U.S. pharmaceutical companies, led by their powerful -- if tight-lipped -- lobby group the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, have been stung by public criticism about drug pricing, safety and advertising, and have pledged to mend fences with the public and media.
There may not be a better person to lead that effort than PhRMA's new chief executive officer Billy Tauzin. Tauzin, formerly a powerful Republican congressman from Louisiana, is a true believer in pharmaceuticals after a close brush with death from cancer this past year.
Slimmer and healthier, Tauzin told media this week he took the PhRMA job "because, frankly, I feel like I'm living on borrowed time for a large part."
His physician put together a state-of-the-art chemotherapy campaign that worked so well, Tauzin now can return the favor by working to give the pharmaceutical industry a healthier public image. He acknowledged the beating Big Pharma has taken over issues including the safety of drugs on the market -- such as the COX-2s -- use of antidepressants in children, rising pharmaceuticals costs, drug reimportation legislation and direct-to-consumer advertising.
"(PhRMA is) helping the industry find its way back to a position of trust they once enjoyed," he said.
The trade association's dealings with the media also have been difficult -- characterized by "No comment" on even major issues, and a refusal by staff to return reporters' phone calls. No more, Tauzin said.
"We are no longer doing, 'No comment' ... we are prepared to discuss any and all topics," Tauzin said, adding the new emphasis for staff will be viewing the pharmaceutical industry through the eyes of patients.
Tauzin said PhRMA's silence has been costly -- for it has failed to explain to the public its positions on issues, provide information on how drug makers do business and get out its own success stories.
Rob Schneider, manager of prescriptionforchange.org, part of the advocacy group the Consumers Union, agreed the pharmaceutical industry has an image problem.
"The public is increasingly uncomfortable with what role in our society pharmaceutical companies are playing," Schneider told UPI's Health Biz.
A key focus for PhRMA is educating the public about the risk/benefit picture of pharmaceutical drugs. It impacts some main issues, including DTC advertising, and hits home with Tauzin because the drugs he took ultimately forced him to weigh potentially serious side effects with the reality of what the medicines could offer.
"It's a very interesting discussion" to have with your physician," he recalled.
Tauzin said the disconnect between the public and the pharmaceutical industry is wide. Surveys show many people believe it takes only three to five years to develop and bring a drug to market -- it really takes more than a decade -- and that only about 500 people are involved in clinical testing for a drug, when in reality, thousands participate.
While the public accepts the risk of having surgery in a hospital, he said, it does not fully understand that each drug also comes with risks that must be weighed against benefits.
Merck's Vioxx is case in point. After drug approval in the late 1990s, Merck advertised the drug heavily based on its benefits and physicians soon were prescribing it liberally as a substitute for ibuprofen, believing it was safer on a patient's gastrointestinal system. Warnings about potential cardiac side effects were added to the drug label but that wasn't a focus of advertising and wasn't readily available public knowledge.
The public was shocked then last fall when the arthritis drug was pulled from the market because it doubled the risk of heart attacks in people taking it longer than 18 months. That set off a cascade of investigations into the COX-2 drugs, so far causing Pfizer to pull Bextra and put a black box warning on Celebrex.
Tauzin said drug ads need to reflect the risk/benefit focus and, to that end, PhRMA members are working to develop a voluntary "set of principles" for self-policing ads. The principles also would include ensuring the ad is targeted to the appropriate patient groups.
Schneider said a DTC code of conduct would not work because pharmaceutical companies use the marketing tactics they do because they are effective in boosting drug sales.
"I find it difficult to believe that Pharma is really going to crack down on the things we've seen -- either the advertisements they do or the style of ads," he said. "Our concern is, when the bright light of public attention is turned away, the old practices will come back."
The Consumers Union supports legislation introduced in the Senate by Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., that would require drug companies to pre-submit ads to the Food and Drug Administration for new drugs up to two years after approval. The legislation also calls for beefed up safety disclosures on ads.
Meg Columbia-Walsh, managing director of marketing consultants Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve in New York, told Health Biz drug advertising already is heavily regulated and the issue represents "a unique challenge" to drug makers to balance the positive effects of health treatments and the risks.
She said she had faith the more Internet savvy public is able to use and process drug ads.
"We have a generation of extremely empowered consumers," Columbia-Walsh said. "The pharmaceutical companies always had the right intention -- to reach consumers."
Tauzin said the industry can "clean up DTC ads" but should never stop the flow of information to patients. He was very critical of tight restrictions the European Union places on drug advertising and said it makes it very difficult for people to find information about treatments that might just save their lives.