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First step for Pharma to regain trust – quit being defensive!

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Having worked in the pharmaceutical industry for a while now as a communications consultant, I have seen – like many others – how often the major players seem to get themselves into trouble with the general public. Sometimes this happens through no fault of their own, other times due to things they have done which literally cause my head to bang quite painfully on my desk in exasperation.

The cartoon above is probably quite a good illustration of how the industry is perceived by large swathes of the general public; quite frankly with good reason. Hardly a day goes by without some fresh scandal or negative piece of media coverage that reinforces that perception, and serves to undermine the immense good that the industry has and continues to do for the world population in general.

I have been following the #hcsmeu group on Twitter for a while now, and three contributors have recently posted on this topic:

@PedroLuisGS: To gain trust, pharma companies should change their business concept: drugs are not an endpoint but a path to regain wellness

@andrewspong: Pharma’s rep[utation] is in tatters. After all the conv[ersation]s about trust, how about championing the patient’s needs to ameliorate the former?

@navatanee: The image of pharma is as bad as the one of tobacco or financial industry. No innovation, just marketing. TRUST??

These tweets all make excellent points. In any holistic healthcare system, a prescription medication given to treat a particular illness is not the final step in the management algorithm, and current ‘push’ marketing strategies employed by pharmaceutical companies can very easily serve to erode public trust. Championing patient needs is clearly a great idea, but based on the current view of Pharma, if they were to start doing this would anyone really not question their motives? As much as I agree with all three comments, I think they all miss the point:

For me, there is one simple step Pharma could take immediately that would go a long way to start rebuilding the ‘trust’ that has been lost, and simultaneously help it to avoid the holes it regularly falls into from a communications standpoint:

Stop being so defensive about what you are! Pharma is a BUSINESS that exists SOLELY to MAKE MONEY for its SHAREHOLDERS. Stop tying yourselves into knots trying to hide that fact, and try instead to find ways to make your business model a win-win scenario for all concerned.

Okay, so this may come across as a bit heartless, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is true. Governments can’t (and probably would not) invest the billions of dollars it takes to develop a single new drug to market (it they could, malaria/TB would have been cured long ago), so it falls to Pharma and its shareholders to risk their own money in the hope of a decent return. If they did not do this, then there would be no drugs. So why all of the guilt?

For me, the real failure of communication from Pharma has been to come clean and talk about their business model with the public. Start a proper, grown-up conversation with doctors and patients about how the whole healthcare system can be improved.

More, better drugs = better outcomes for patients = more profit for Pharma = more, better drugs, and so on…

Open and transparent conversation (i.e. via social media, rather than one-way advertising) between Pharma, doctors and patients = better selection of/adherence to/trust in treatment = better outcomes = well, you get the picture…

In this new, internet-enabled age, everyone has the power to effect change in how things are done. We can all make a real difference, as long as we cast off the dogma that has held us back in the past.

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Banning mephedrone is not the answer

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In the news today is the sad story of two teenagers who died in Scunthorpe this week, allegedly as a result of taking the ‘legal high’ mephedrone while out drinking with friends. Predictably, we now have calls for this drug to be banned – indeed, classified as a Class A drug alongside ecstacy and heroin.

I’ve blogged on the inherent stupidity of our current drug laws previously, so won’t go into it again (NB: just to make clear, the only mind-altering drug that I self-administer is ethanol, and in limited quantities at that). However, it’s worth making the point – mephedrone has been in use as a recreational drug for some time, across the world. In that time, apparently the number of deaths linked to its use is next to zero. Obviously, there will be side effects – particularly with high doses and/or long-term use – but this is evidently true for alcohol and smoking; I don’t see either of these being re-classified as Class A drugs any time soon, do you…?

A key point of all of this for me was that the teenagers in question were 18 and 19 years of age, i.e. adults. Nothing I’ve read suggests that they were forced to take mephedrone against their will, or that it was a tragic accident. In the end, it seems that they thought they could mess with their minds with no consequences, and were sadly proved wrong.

In the end, more effective education and open conversation will always have more impact than simply issuing a blanket ban. It’s the shame that banning things is so much easier…

Categories: drugs

Why can’t drug policy be evidence-based?

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Two recent articles on the vexed topic of illegal drugs caught my eye this week. The first was an interview in the Metro with Prof David Nutt, until recently the UK Government’s chief drugs adviser, who was fired after making ‘outspoken’ comments on how the country’s current drugs policy is not fit for purpose.

Being a scientist by training, and working in the pharmaceutical industry where everything my clients and I do must be evidence-based and referenced, the glaring inconsistencies in the UK’s drug laws have always perplexed me (writing as someone whose dabbling in mind-altering substances is strictly restricted to ethanol and the occasional bowl of Tira Misu) – smoking and alcohol are somehow okay (or at least legal) while drugs like cannabis and ecstacy are not. Even within the classification system there appears to be little evidence-based decision-making going on, with drugs being moved between bands on a seemingly regular basis with no clear justification.

Prof Nutt makes some pretty good points – to me at least – in his interview, for example:

“Alcohol is a drug that is most worrying to most parents and it is the drug that is most likely to damage young teenagers. One a day dies of alcohol poisoning and one or two a day die in a road traffic or other accident relating to alcohol – that’s why it is the most dangerous drug. We should be focusing our efforts on that, not pretending that other drugs are worse … I am continuing to make a case that drug laws, to be fair and just, should properly reflect the harm to the person using and to society, and if they don’t do that then injustice will occur. More innocent non-drug-using people die from road traffic accidents and other damage from alcohol than any other drug.”

Personally, I believe that adults should be free to do what they like with their own bodies, as long as they are fully aware of the potential consequences beforehand (for example, possible mental illness) and are willing to take responsibility for whatever may happen, and also as long as no-one else is harmed directly or indirectly as a result.

This leads to the second article, posted by Melanie Phillips on her blog at the Spectator. Phillips takes a very hard line on Prof Nutt’s views and on those who consider that liberalization of the drug laws may be an avenue worth going down. Clearly, drugs policy is not my area, but one specific section sprang out:

“Nutt’s offence in crossing the line into opposition to government policy was merely the overt political expression of a position on drug law so irresponsible and potentially harmful, through its downplaying of the risks of drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy, that it should have barred him from public office long previously.”

I freely admit that I have not performed a full literature review and analysis of the safety and toxicity of drugs like cannabis or ecstacy; however, what I have seen to date suggests to me that – while obviously not being risk-free – the potential dangers of either of these drugs are probably comparable in severity to drinking way too much on a night out or smoking 20 a day long-term.

As always, politics and people who are either simply ignorant or have vested interests always rear their ugly heads in any discussion on this topic. As a scientist by training, is it really too much to ask for some evidence-based decision-making??

Perhaps, as always, there is a conspiracy at work? 😉

UPDATE: Have just found the Support Professor David Nutt: We want an evidence based drugs policy group on Facebook.