Anthony Hilton: Decline and fall of Pharma’s image

When Imperial College rector Sir Richard Sykes chaired an inquiry into the financial services industry 18 months ago, he said the money men could learn much from pharmaceuticals.

Sykes, who before his stint at Imperial headed Glaxo Wellcome, said drugs companies had achieved considerable success in cutting through the complexity of products, raising the public’s understanding of medicine. He contrasted this with the financial services industry, which had made minimal efforts to educate the public in the responsible use of financial products. At the time this seemed like fair comment, but not any more. So far has the pharma industry’s reputation sunk that it has even been likened to that of the tobacco sector.

AstraZeneca has run into negative publicity on cholesterol-lowering drug Crestor (see At A Glance, p12), and separately stopped marketing anti-lung cancer product Iressa. Bayer has withdrawn Baycol, Merck has pulled Vioxx, Pfizer has been criticised over Celebrex, and GlaxoSmithKline has been accused of covering up an alleged link between Seroxat and teenage suicide.

It has all gone horribly wrong very quickly. Drug companies have moved from being science-driven, knowledge-based operations to giant, international marketing machines. They are therefore less warmly viewed by a sceptical public and critics, who allege that the desire for sales and profit could be elevated above safety. This has struck a chord with customers alienated by the arrogance of GSK chief executive Jean-Pierre Garnier in the much-publicised pay row and disturbed by the problem of expensive drugs not being made available in poorer regions of the world.

If Sykes were writing now, he would have to admit that his erstwhile industry faces a PR crisis.

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