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Project on Government Oversight




How Can We Stop Drug Scandals?

October 18, 2010 


Every time you turn around, it seems like another pharmaceutical scandal is in the news. Just last month, Forest Laboratories agreed to pay the federal government $313 million and pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and illegal promotion of Celexa to treat children with depression.

In an opinion piece in last week’s New Scientist, POGO's Paul Thacker wrote about ways that we might stop the next drug scandal from occurring. Not that Mr. Thacker thinks that we can avoid these outrages, but perhaps we can make them smaller or less frequent.

Here’s the scope of the problem: Since 2004, the pharmaceutical industry has paid over $7 billion in fines and penalties. The $2.3 billion that Pfizer paid in September last year was the largest health care settlement in the history of the Department of Justice.

Mr. Thacker offered four potential solutions in the New Scientist:

  • Slow down the money pharma companies give to doctors

    Companies spend millions every year enticing physicians to prescribe their drugs. For instance, Forest Labs spent $36 million in 2004 on lunches for doctors to help market their antidepressant, Lexapro. Various disclosure sites are now available to monitor this money—for instance Pfizer’s is here. But we also need universities and professional societies to crack down on industry gifts to physicians. Doctors should represent us, the patients. Not large companies.

  • Reform Continuing Medical Education (CME)

    Every year physicians have to take courses in CME to stay up on the latest medical advances. Almost half the money spent on CME for doctors comes from pharma companies. We wouldn’t allow British Petroleum to sponsor classes at a major university, and we shouldn’t allow medical companies to pay for physician education.

  • Throw the bums in jail

    No matter what type of illegal activity happens, none of the top executives at pharma companies go to jail. Prison sentences can change behavior.

  • Change the courts

    Nefarious behavior in the pharmaceutical industry almost always comes to light through litigation. But this information gets tied up in the courts and locked down under court seals. In the case of pharma litigation, decisions about making public documents on patient safety are too complex to be left in the hands of judges whose training in medical ethics is three years of law school. Congress needs to change the law to ensure that the public learns about products that are dangerous when evidence comes to light in the judicial branch.

Finally, although Mr. Thacker did not touch on this in the New Scientist, the public needs to consider if they are happy with a Food and Drug Administration that gets only about $4 billion a year to regulate around 25 percent of our country’s economy.

That means for every $500 of products sold in country, the public has about $1 to approve products, regulate sales and marketing, litigate in court, investigate criminal matters, oversee foreign companies, etc….

Does this sound like enough? As POGO Staff Scientist Dr. Ned Feder wrote last year, “[a] huge budget increase–a doubling or tripling in the next few years–is long overdue.”

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO's investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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