Drug companies mount defense about the expense

PEOPLE'S PHARMACY

September 28, 1993|By Joe Graedon and Dr. Teresa Graedon | Joe Graedon and Dr. Teresa Graedon,Contributing Writers King Features Syndicate

Drug companies are on the defensive. Open almost any magazine and you will find an ad or two touting the wonders of modern pharmaceuticals.

There's the picture of the feisty fellow who's grinning broadly although he has his fists up, ready to duke it out "if you took away the ulcer drug that's saving him from a $25,000 operation."

Then you have a woman, smiling happily with her cat snuggling on her shoulder. She appears grateful that the drug she takes to prevent a stroke "lets her hold onto her independence and life's savings."

Everyone can relate to maintaining independence and avoiding surgery. These are powerful messages. What such wonderful (and very expensive) ads don't mention is that millions of Americans can no longer afford to pay for the latest drug breakthroughs.

The anti-stroke drug Ticlid (ticlopidine) can run over $80 for a month's supply. Cognex (tacrine), a brand new drug for Alzheimer's disease, may cost $4 a day. This is certainly a bargain compared to nursing home care, but for many elderly patients on fixed incomes it will take a big bite out of the budget.

Then there's the just-approved medicine for multiple sclerosis. Betaseron (interferon beta-1b) will cost $989.40 per month. Even patients who aren't poor will have a hard time swallowing a $10,000 annual drug bill.

The Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association likes to talk about "how new medicines improve lives and save money." For some readers of this column, such a catchy slogan rings hollow.

Charlotte is on Social Security disability, but it won't provide for her medicines. "After I pay for rent, lights, water and food, I have about $15 left. Just one drug I take costs $84 for 60 pills, but I have to take three a day, plus three other medicines. Without them I am bedridden and in severe pain all the time.

I tried to take my life last month. I just couldn't take being broke with no way out and always worried about how to pay for my medicines."

The PMA has attempted to respond to such tragic situations by alerting physicians to free medicine available for needy patients. But many people who aren't destitute may also have trouble paying for their drugs.

We heard from a 28-year-old: "I've had epilepsy since I was a junior in high school. To prevent seizures I have to take Depakote and Klonopin. I have to buy the Depakote every other week because the cheapest I can find it is $82.99 for just 100 tablets. That does not go very far, as I take six tablets a day. Klonopin is $53.99 a month.

"For a while I didn't mind paying so much, but at the beginning of the year I was laid off. I haven't found another job yet. Between my other bills and my medicine, I'm at the end of my rope."

We sent him our brochure on minimizing medicine costs with tips on how to request free medicine. Anyone who would like a copy of Graedons' Guide to Saving Money on Medicines, please send $1 with a long (No. 10) stamped, self-addressed envelope: Graedons' People's Pharmacy, No. Z-97, P. O. Box 52027, Durham, N.C. 27717-2027.

This brochure also lists popular brand name products that are available generically at substantial savings.

Q: My doctor wants me to take calcium supplements to keep my bones strong. My mother suffers from severe osteoporosis and is in a lot of pain, so I am at high risk.

Which calcium supplement is best? I've heard that dolomite has a good balance of calcium and magnesium but that it sometimes contains lead. Is it safe?

A: The controversy over lead in calcium supplements has been around for decades. Nearly 10 years ago the Food and Drug Administration cautioned the public about natural calcium compounds.

New research (in the August issue of the American Journal of Public Health) indicates that some popular products may be contaminated with lead. Although levels of this toxic mineral are relatively low, exposure over a lifetime could be of concern.

We spoke with one of the investigators, Dr. Bernard Bourgoin. He suggests that to minimize the hazards of lead, consumers should seek out supplements of refined calcium carbonate and avoid supplements that proclaim they are derived from "natural sources, oyster shell or ancient marine deposits." Bone meal and dolomite (limestone), which are also natural sources of calcium, may also contain lead.

Q: The older I get, the more unsightly hair grows in my ears and nostrils. Is it safe to use -- carefully -- one of those creams ladies use to get rid of hair on their legs?

A: A depilatory cream such as Nair or Nudit is not designed for use in delicate spots like ears or nostrils. Such products can sometimes be irritating, even on the legs.

Your best bet for removing that unwanted hair is small sharp scissors with blunt tips. Ask your pharmacist to help you choose a pair.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Dr. Teresa Graedon is a medical anthropologist and nutrition expert.

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