Opinion: Irony of pharmas' saint and sinner status

'Trying to save thousands of lives' read a recent Times headline on the trial of a new lung cancer vaccine, the results of which were good enough - in the words of the Times sub-editors - to bring 'fresh hope of a breakthrough'. The company involved in the trials alongside Biomira, and whose work was described in positively glowing terms, is Merck & Co. That's right - the same company currently the subject of a massive class-action suit following the voluntary withdrawal of its arthritis pain-relief drug Vioxx.

Merck, like many pharmas, is portrayed as saint and sinner simultaneously. On the one hand, The Times suspends cynicism in the face of potential breakthroughs. On the other hand, pharmaceuticals' record - of protectionist pricing policies, questionable ethics over clinical trials, and prevention of the spread of generic drugs - has led to comparisons with the tobacco industry.

Which is somewhat ironic. While there are similarities of apparent unswerving dedication to shareholder value above all other considerations, the fact remains that tobacco companies' products kill, while the pharmaceutical industry's save lives.

With every drug brought to market, the potential for better quality of life is enhanced. It is hard to think of a better platform from which to launch a credible CSR positioning, something that most pharmas have failed to do to a spectacular degree.

At PRWeek's crisis comms conference last week, Edna Kissmann - a veteran adviser on pharma reputational strategy - said pharma firms have a stark choice: to become prime movers in health preservation and disease prevention as well as amelioration; or to divest the controversial control of proprietary scientific development to public third parties, concentrating instead on production, marketing, delivery and education.

Both would be a bitter pill to swallow. The first option poses the risk of killing off your market by curing it; the second would entail a significant surrender of power and profit with the loss of patent control. Undoubtedly the industry does have a larger role to play in society and needs to take a leadership position on, and contribute to, the reduction of the cost of disease in society.

Not to do so can only increase its pariah status.

But does it really care? A conference delegate from a large pharma firm may have spoken for many when she repeatedly asked: 'But what do I tell the board about the share price?' It doesn't bode well.

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