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Big pharma marketing practices may be harming public health: Part I

In a September post, we discussed the problem of prescription drug marketing in the United States. Pharmaceutical companies make invaluable contributions to society in the form of important drugs that can save lives and improve health. And they take on this important work not as a public service, but rather because it is highly lucrative. Champions of free-market capitalism might call this a win-win arrangement.

But how much power and influence should drug companies be allowed to wield, given that their primary goal is to maximize profit? Should they be allowed to market their drugs for purposes other than those which have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration?

A recent article in the New York Times notes that the pharmaceutical industry is pushing for the freedom to market drugs for “off-label” uses; a freedom currently reserved only for doctors. These companies couch the issue as a First Amendment right to free speech. But even if we accept the assertion that corporations have the same rights as individuals (an issue which is far from settled), there are very real public health concerns associated with how aggressively pharmaceutical companies are allowed to market their drugs.

The Times article tells the story of a boy named Andrew, who was medicated for behavioral issues starting at age five. His drug regimen increased and frequently changed for the next decade. At age 15, he suffered brain death as a rare complication from one of his medications. Andrew’s father, who was a longtime pharmaceutical industry executive, is now an outspoken critic of practices that prioritize profit above public health.

Children may be especially at risk when pharmaceutical companies push ethical and legal boundaries in the pursuit of profit. The use of psychiatric drugs on children has exploded in recent years. According to the Times article, “children with emotional or mental disorders have become a gold mine for the drug industry.” But many of these drugs have not been proven to be safe for children, whose brains and bodies are still developing.

The issue of aggressive marketing and off-label marketing is too broad for just one blog post. Please check back next week as we continue this discussion.

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