Can't donate to charity?
Volunteer computer time
or Support SETI!
R&D Sponsorship Center
October 2009

Home Page
Feature Archive
A&I Column Archive
Production Tools
State Marketing Data
US Marketing Data
World Marketing
Service Directory
Quality Assurance
3D Printing

Subscribe to Advertising & Marketing Review!
Contact Ken Custer at 303-277-9840.

Big Pharma Adopting Tobacco Industry Tactics

by Glen Emerson Morris
Related Columns
Desktop Manufacturing
Hits the Home Market

It's the biggest revolution of the 21st century. And it's going on now.
The Fab Future of
Desktop Manufacturing

Desktop manufacturing is finally getting affordable, at least to businesses.
The Object of 3D Printing
Print anything you need, from cameras to cars, and do your own recycling.
The Future of Arthur C. Clarke
One of the greatest science writers predicts what this century will hold for us.
Recommended Columns
The Greening of Expectations
It's not a fad, it's critical to our survival.
The Learning Curve to Prosperity
Buckminster Fuller predicted the resource crunch now hitting us. He also gave us the tools to deal with it.

It's been a decade since the tobacco industries reached a settlement with the various state Attorneys General. This was a major turning point in that it was the first time a large megacorp had lost an information war. Big Tobacco lost the ability to keep negative information about their product contained, especially after plaintiff lawyers started pooling information with each other via the Internet. Once the extent of the harmful effects of smoking became known, and the extent to which the tobacco industries had gone to suppress that knowledge known, Big Tobacco found itself in an indefensible position.

In eerie repeat of the past, in 2009 two pharmaceutical giants agreed to a multibillion-dollar settlement for overstating the health benefits of certain drugs, suppressing information about their drug's negative side effects, and generally bribing everyone in sight to be able to carry on business as usual. It's less a new issue than the continuation of an old one.

One of the legacies of the tobacco industry, for good or bad, is that they really learned how to market a product effectively, especially one known to cause physical and psychological dependencies, as well as harmful health effects including the death of one in three people who used it on a regular basis. That was a tough sell, if you really think about it, but tobacco marketing rose to the occasion. In the process, several core principles evolved; flood the market with positive information, suppress negative information, but above all, spread the money generously. It worked well enough the tobacco industry made record profits even as its products killed an estimated 1,000 American smokers a day.

As the saying goes, if you can't steal marketing ideas in America, what can you steal? But whether the Pharmaceutical corporations studied Big Tobacco's tactics, or evolved a similar approach on their own based on similar marketing requirements is academic, it's clear that Big Pharma has proven that Big Tobacco's tactics work very well for marketing pharmaceuticals. It's no wonder, given how similar their businesses became over the years.

At the beginning of the last century, the tobacco industry's primary business was selling tobacco leaves, packaged in a variety of convenient formats. By the beginning of this century, the tobacco industry's primary business was selling a very complex set of chemicals using "tobacco product" as a carrier for those chemicals, packaged in a variety of convenient formats. Big Pharma was doing much the same thing, selling complex chemicals in convenient packing.

Several years ago Pharma discovered a class of drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These initially were believed to help depression, a multi-billion dollar market, but were later targeted at a variety of conditions including pain management for people with fibromyalgia and diabetes, also major markets in their own right.

The driving force behind selling drugs for the new, off-recommended uses was far more marketing than science. The drug manufacturers are quick to acknowledge that they have no idea how or why SSRIs work, just that somehow they do. Unfortunately, this throws a lot of the predictability usually associated with medicine out the window. SSRIs seem to cause many different effects in many different people. There's no predicting what the effects will be, and some people are reporting serious debilitating withdrawal problems lasting up to eight months from the time they quit taking the drugs.

Almost from the time of their release, the drug review sections of WebMD and similar Websites filled up with reports of people having serious negative reactions to Cymbalta and Lyrica. Nearly 30% of the people who reviewed either drug gave it the lowest satisfaction rating they could. EBay would throw any seller off its Website who pulled numbers half that bad. Yet both products were, and continue to be, enthusiastically recommended by doctors all too eager to listen to sales pitches delivered to them at lavish resorts.

It's not surprising that the tobacco industry's tactics proved particularly profitable when applied to drugs like SSRI's. Western medicine has such a poor track record at treating mental disorders that anything that causes a positive effect is seen as a major breakthrough, regardless of any serious, even life threatening, side effects it may cause.

It's seen as just putting a positive spin on things. Financially rewarding doctors for recommending their products is business as usual, and none of the business of consumers, who may expect transparency in government but not in business, even when their health is at stake. Until October 2008, GSK CEO Andrew Witty fought "transparency" on the grounds full disclosure of drug company payments to doctors would "devalue" GSK's assets. The company only reversed its position after howls of consumer protest.

From Pharma's point of view, the way to profits is to concentrate on the positive results, ignore, and if possible suppress, the negative results, and buy all the influence you can afford. Until this year's fines, the approach worked reasonably well. In fact it worked too well. Then reality caught up with Big Pharma.

In January 2009 Lilly agreed to pay $1.4 billion to settle claims it misrepresented risks and benefits of its drug Zyprexa. In September 2009 Pfizer pled guilty and was fined $1.3 billion for criminal misconduct in the marketing of its drug Bextra, among other things, for non-approved uses, and for taking doctors who prescribed Bextra on lavish trips, and for drafting articles promoting their product without disclosing the source of the information (and passing it off as independent research, which it wasn't). Pfizer was also hit with another $1.0 billion in civil fines over misconduct in marketing other drugs.

It's nice the see the government isn't completely asleep, but that doesn't offer much consolation. These fines pale in comparison with Big Pharma's profits. There are no signs Big Pharma has learned anything except to accept fines as just another cost of doing business, just as they accept the routine corruption medical judgment, and the corruption of science itself. What is beyond Big Pharma's ability to corrupt, at least so far, is the ability of consumers to share the truth about the products they use. In this brave new world, the truth might not set us free, but it might keep us alive.

The rise of the Internet, and the tobacco settlement that made it possible, didn't end the war for truth in advertising, it only acted to level the playing field. The real war is just starting, and it will likely go on for decades.

Glen Emerson Morris was recently a senior QA Consultant for SAP working on a new product to help automate compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley law, an attempt to make large corporations at least somewhat accountable to stockholders and the law. He has worked as a technology consultant for Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius.

Copyright 1994 - 2009 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

' keywords: Internet advertising, Internet marketing, business, advertising, Internet, marketing. For more advertising and marketing help, news, resources and information visit our Home Page.

Back to top

Economic Indicators
Census 2010
Census Bureau
Health   Labor
Commerce Dept.

It's Time to Let
A Robot
Make Your Sales Pitch!
Roy the Robot
Funded by Kickstarter