Almost everyone agrees that we need to invest more in developing drugs that treat and cure the illnesses that beset poor people. Many of us disagree, though, with pharmaceutical companies when they whinge about “patent protection”. This translates as keeping prices high while Big Pharma recoups its investment in research and rewards its shareholders. The drug barons are going to have an even harder time whipping up sympathy in the light of new research which estimates that the pharmaceutical industry in the US spends nearly twice as much promoting its products as it does developing them.
Researchers Marc-André Gagnon and Joel Lexchin estimate that Big Pharma spent US$57.5 billion on promotion (which boils down to bribing doctors to prescribe their products and, increasingly, pushing patients to demand them). That compares with US$31.5 billion spent on R&D, a figure which includes research spending by taxpayers.
Those who battle daily to bring down the price of second-line antiretroviral drugs in the face of cries that their efforts will undermine research in the private sector are quite right: shareholders of companies that made US$558 billion in profits between 1996 and 2005 should just quit their bitching.