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Those Clever Drug Companies, Again


Trudy LiebermanIf prizes were given for ingenious marketing, drug companies would win top honors.'  Like most businesses, they want to expand markets'that means getting you to buy more drugs whether you need them or not.'  Their appetite for finding new ways of doing that is insatiable.'  Researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health got some press a week or two ago with a study showing that drug makers fund health advocacy organizations'the ones that help people cope with debilitating diseases like mental disorders, diabetes, cancer and sleep disorders.

This practice has been going on for some time.'  A few years ago in the Columbia Journalism Review, I revealed how the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) was tied to the drug industry.'  Makers of sleeping pills contributed nearly $1 million of the group's'  $3.6 million budget.'  Sepracor, which had just embarked on a big ad campaign to sell the new sleeping pill Lunesta, had given the NSF a $300,000 grant to produce a series of 'Sleep Medicine Alerts''brochures to educate doctors about insomnia.'  Presumably these were ultimately intended to entice doctors to prescribe Lunesta.

Since I wrote that story, quantifying how much money is being spent to tie advocacy groups to a drug maker's purse strings suddenly has become easier.'  Thanks to the terms of a legal settlement with pharmaceutical manufacturers, drug makers have to start revealing financial data, including grants they made to disease groups. Researchers at the Mailman School examined data disclosed by Eli Lilly & Co. from'  the first half of 2007 and found that advocacy groups were not keen on sharing with the public'including their members'how much they had received from Lilly.'  Only one-quarter of the 161 organizations disclosed on their websites that they took drug company money; 18 percent revealed in their annual reports that they received Lilly money; and only 1 percent listed Lilly on a corporate sponsors page.

Advocacy groups got some $3.2 million from Lilly during this period.'  It's hardly surprising that they targeted groups representing patients with neurological or psychiatric disorders, endocrine disorders like diabetes, and cancer.'  Lilly markets drugs in these categories.

These latest disclosures follow the release of data last fall from ProPublica that showed hundreds of the nation's doctors were also on the take from drug makers.'  The news organization revealed that more than 300 docs collected over $100,000 in speaking fees in 2009.'  Drug manufacturers typically find doctors who treat patients likely to use their drugs and use them as pitchmen, all in the name of medical education.

ProPublica reporters said they hoped their stories would spark conversations between patients and their doctors about what drugs were prescribed.'  The same advice might be applied to information about drugs or any recommended treatments made by advocacy groups with financial links to drug companies.

ProPublica apparently took advantage of the same drug maker data sets that the Mailman School researchers used.'  More data will become available in 2013, which will undoubtedly bring more disclosures about potential conflicts of interest.'  What's a poor patient to do?'  It would be too bad if all this new information causes patients to throw up their hands and tune out, asking 'what else is new?'' '  For sure, it will cause more dissonance.'  Patients know something is rotten, but what are they supposed to do?'  Figuring that out is the hard part.

There just might be too much information, or TMI, as the younger crowd calls it to work with.

More Blog Posts by Trudy Lieberman

author bio

Trudy Lieberman, a journalist for more than 40 years, is an adjunct associate professor of public health at Hunter College in New York City. She had a long career at Consumer Reports specializing in insurance, health care, health care financing and long-term care. She is a longtime contributor to the Columbia Journalism Review and blogs for its website,, about media coverage of health care, Social Security and retirement. As a William Ziff Fellow at the Center for Advancing Health, she contributes regularly to the Prepared Patient Blog. Follow her on twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.

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February 1, 2011 at 8:04 AM

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