Popping pill pushers

August 08, 2005

NO QUESTION about it, Americans are suckers for pills. Pills to soothe their pains, pills to relax their brains. Pills to cure their blues, pills to take the load off their shoes. Pills to boost their energy to the ceiling; pills to bring back that lovin' feeling.

Drugmakers are no dopes; they spent $4 billion last year in seductive advertisements praising the potential of their potions. They know the most profitable way to reach this ready market is directly, bypassing pesky physicians who might consider their medicine unnecessary or advocate a cheaper generic alternative.

But soaring pharmaceutical costs, combined with the Vioxx fiasco of a heavily advertised painkiller that caused heart attacks, are finally beginning to undermine the industry's political support in Congress.

Thus, former Rep. Billy Tauzin, who took over recently as chief of the industry's lobby, went on the offensive last week with an elaborate campaign to announce that drugmakers had agreed to a set of voluntary guidelines intended to ensure their advertising come-ons are accurate and appropriate for their audiences.

It was too little, too late, and the lawmakers were appropriately unimpressed.

In fact, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist suggested that a two-year delay be imposed between the time drugs are approved for the market and when they could be advertised to consumers. Mr. Frist, a heart transplant surgeon, thinks doctors need the time to learn about new drugs before they start getting pestered for them by patients.

Still others suggested that the 1997 decision to lift the ban on drug advertising should be declared a failure, and the ban reinstated.

At the very least, the pharmaceutical industry has demonstrated it can't be allowed to police itself.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, has been a leading voice in the building chorus for tighter and more-independent regulation of the pharmaceutical industry as well as curbs on prices. He and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, are sponsoring legislation intended to circumvent the cozy relationship between the drugmakers and the Food and Drug Administration reviewers who approve their products for market.

The senators proposed to create an office within the FDA - but distinct from the original reviewers - that would monitor the safety of drugs and medical devices after they have gone into general public use.

Congress should use this legislation as the basis for a thorough restructuring of pharmaceutical regulation, including a new look at what restrictions should be placed on advertising to curb abuses.

The industry's tactic of trying to pre-empt such action through self-controls was shrewd. But its prescription for the problem of creating demand for needless or even harmful drugs was a placebo.

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