Holman Jenkins has an interesting "Business World" column in today's Wall Street Journal. Writing about Merck and Vioxx, he wonders:
"Did CEO Ray Gilmartin blunder in withdrawing Vioxx from the market? Merck executives yanked the prescription pain reliever, amid much backpatting, when a study revealed that long-term users were at somewhat elevated risk for heart attacks and strokes.
Merck was evidently bidding for public admiration in sacking its biggest revenue spinner. If so, the tactic seems to have failed catastrophically. And contrary to the tone of much recent coverage, doctors had long understood that patients taking Vioxx would suffer more heart attacks than patients taking conventional pain relievers."
I didn't think that Merck was looking for good-conduct points, actually - what changed was that there was finally a large-scale study that showed irrefutable evidence that there was a cardiovascular problem. Jenkins goes into this a bit, but I think that it's clear that if Merck wasn't going to act, then the FDA would have forced them. Perhaps that's the only good PR that they might have been hoping to salvage. He goes on to make a very useful point:
"Merck chose to withdraw the drug, although honesty would have been equally well-served by a big informational campaign saying: "Don't prescribe this for patients not at risk for stomach bleeding. Don't let patients become chronic users."
Given that market surveys show that two-thirds of Cox-2 users don't need them, Merck's revenue hit would have been devastating in either case. But it would have made the point that Vioxx is not a defective product -- all drugs have risks that have to be weighed against their benefits -- but a seriously overprescribed one.
The Vioxx debacle is symptomatic of a system that shields consumers from price signals and sometimes actually discourages them from making the right health-care choices. . .Big Pharma is well along in being corrupted by third-party payership, just like the rest of the health-care industry. Drug makers increasingly aim their development efforts at the aches, pains, insecurities, heartburn and erectile dysfunction of price-insensitive, over-insured baby boomers because that's where the money is.
The problem is compounded by a regulatory system that drives the cost of developing a new drug to a billion or more, then forces companies to recoup all their costs in a few short years before the patent expires. This basically forecloses a great deal of investment in drugs that don't fit the above description, such as vaccines or antibiotics."
Unfortunately, there's an awful lot of truth in that. Since we're a business, we are always going to look for where the most money can be made. Other things being equal, underserved markets would be some of those places. But with the increasing difficulty of finding drugs and getting them to market, the pressure to get your few, rare shots to land right has increased. Thus the situation that Jenkins describes - and this is where I part company with the Marcia Angells and Merrill Goozners of the world.
They see the current situation and say "See! The big drug companies are just going for the big profitable diseases! That's why pharmaceuticals are in the shape they're in!" And from our end, it looks more like "Things are in such bad shape that we'd better stick to the big, profitable diseases. If we spend all our time targeting the others, we'll go under!" It's a cause-and-effect argument.
And the larger point stands as well: I think that companies should, in fact, shoulder blame for promoting Cox-2 inhibitors as if they were the right choice for everyone, and for pushing things like Nexium over Prilosec (and Prilosec over the older drugs in the category, for that matter.) But there's plenty of blame to go around.
Physicians have to write prescriptions for these things for us to sell them. Have the doctors been stampeded by our marketing departments, bribed by our piles of loot, or are they worried that if they don't write for these drugs then the next doctor will? And what about the insurance companies who are paying for all this stuff? To me, those are the people whose actions make the least sense.