In recent years, the pharmaceutical industry has been repeatedly (and rightly) excoriated for its shameless efforts to promote its products: Freebies handed out to doctors as inducements to prescribe particular drugs. Studies underwritten by drug companies with financial interests in the outcome published in prestigious journals. Lucrative consulting contracts given to National Institutes of Health scientists. To name just a few.
You would think that in the face of all the unpleasant scrutiny -- books on the industry's "deceit" and "greed," congressional investigations, lawsuits and even some criminal convictions -- drug makers would wake up, do some serious self-analysis, retool their outrageous marketing practices and try, as Pfizer Chief Executive Jeffrey Kindler said last month, to "earn the trust of patients and the public."
But this week, two New York Times stories suggested that, despite rhetoric to the contrary and a few tentative efforts at self-policing, the industry is still up to its old tricks. On Wednesday, the Times reported that federal prosecutors and health officials are planning to crack down on illegal drug-company kickbacks to physicians. As they should. These payments line doctors' pockets while driving up the cost of care and doing nothing -- or worse -- for patients.
The second story chronicled the anger of Harvard Medical School students over professors who receive drug industry consulting and speaking fees. About 1,600 of the school's professors and lecturers -- charged with molding the minds of aspiring doctors --acknowledged that they or a relative had a financial interest in a business related to their teaching, research or clinical care; 149 had ties to Pfizer, and 130 to Merck.
The industry must be brought under control. But how? Its lobbyists are among the most powerful in Washington. Its revenues, though battered, remain enormous. Its voluntary measures have been largely symbolic or merely attempts to forestall tougher requirements imposed from outside. Yes, Pfizer and Eli Lilly recently unveiled new disclosure rules, and yes, the industry has tightened its ban on trinkets, fancy meals and other gifts -- but these are only a start.
Outsiders must keep the pressure on. An investigation by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) has identified doctors who have failed to disclose large payments from drug firms. The crackdown by prosecutors is also welcome. In addition, the medical profession and academia need to wean themselves off inappropriate drug company money and ensure that their conflict-of-interest policies are loophole-free. Inevitably, some drug money will still flow in, and Congress must make full disclosure mandatory. The too-cozy ties between doctors and drug makers must end.