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15 Dirty Big Pharma Tricks That Rip You Off and Risk Your Health for Profit

Even during a recession, pharma is still the nation's third most profitable sector. Here are some of the dirty tricks it employs to stay on top.
 
 
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Even during a two-year recession with people losing their homes and jobs, pharma is still the nation's third most profitable sector. How does it do that? In part by cheating the government, misrepresenting science, bribing doctors, patients and pharmacies, and squeezing the FDA. Other than that, the industry plays completely fair. Pharma has often been criticized for lack of creativity in developing new drugs. But these dirty tricks show its creativity is alive and well when it comes to putting the public at risk just to turn a profit.

1. Astroturf Patients?

Pharma promotes fake patient advocacy groups to lobby for its interests.

These front groups often push the FDA to approve an expensive drug that has acceptable, cheaper alternatives. Or, they'll try to prevent Medicaid from switching to the less pricey drug. One of the largest faux groups, the "grassroots" National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), was investigated by Sen. Charles Grassley for undisclosed pharma links. He found the 10 top NAMI state chapters received $3.84 million from pharma in less than five years, the biggest largesse from Eli Lilly, AstraZeneca and Bristol-Myers Squibb.

How else can you tell an astroturf group? Their Web sites look just like the pharma companies that fund them.

2. Cheating the Government

Pharma is now a top defrauder of the federal government. “Desperate to maintain their high margin of profit in the face of a dwindling number of important new drugs,” pharma illegally promotes unapproved uses of drugs and deliberately overcharges Medicare and Medicaid, says Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. Pharmaceutical companies have been hit with $14.8 billion in wrongdoing settlements in the last five years. But that's still cheaper for Big Pharma than going about things the old-fashioned, legal way. So the fraud continues.

3. Trials and Fibulations

Presiding over clinical trials can make a doctor thousands per patient. But they wouldn't compromise patient safety just to make a buck, would they? Medical College of Georgia psychiatrist Richard Borison and his colleague Bruce Diamond did 13 years ago when they tested Zyprexa, Risperdal and 20 other drugs and ended up in jail. So did Baystate Medical Center's Scott Reuben, who went to prison earlier this year for fraudulent Celebrex, Neurontin and Lyrica trials. And a Tucson facility testing asthma drugs Symbicort, Advair and Singulair doctored data and risked patients' health to net as much as $10,000 per patient, according to a whistleblower and government and court documents. How many other drugs were tested for such fiscal outcomes? Not counting recalled ones, of course.

4. More Trials and Fibulations

Even without fraud, pharma-sponsored studies can deceive. Trials that only determine that a drug is "not worse" than another one or impute safety before real data are available -- as in the case of Vioxx and Avandia's threat of heart attacks -- can skew results. And some research is not meant to be accurate to begin with. The Johnson & Johnson Center for Pediatric Psychopathology Research at Massachusetts General Hospital was founded to "move forward the commercial goals of J.& J." according to unsealed court documents. Its head, Harvard's Joseph Biederman, promised J.& J. a proposed drug trial "will support the safety and effectiveness of risperidone [Risperdal] in this age group," before it was ever conducted. Why leave things up to science?

5. Overseas Adventurism

As pharma increasingly eyes poorer countries for new markets and cheaper manufacturing it also eyes them for cheaper clinical trials. In 1996, 11 Nigerian children died in trials testing Pfizer's not-yet-approved antibiotic Trovan. While Pfizer paid the Nigerian government and state of Kano millions in a settlement, documents released by Wikileaks show that Pfizer tried to extort Nigeria's former attorney general to drop the lawsuits. Trovan was withdrawn from U.S. markets in 2001 for liver toxicity, though "safety signals" may have appeared sooner.

 
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