Profits Come Before Patients


RECENT OPINION polls show that Americans regard the pharmaceutical industry with roughly the same level of contempt as Big Tobacco. This comparison, between the international cartel of life-saving drugs and the conglomerate of killer tobacco, is remarkably astute: Both are murderers.

Big Pharma deliberately withheld access to life-saving drugs to the populations of poor countries ravaged by AIDS as millions died, in order to maintain patents guaranteeing astronomically high profit margins on their AIDS drugs.

In 2001, the World Trade Organization ruled to allow poor countries to manufacture their own cheaper generic AIDS drugs, dropping the price from as high as $12,000 per year to as low as $150. Yet 95 percent of the 6 million AIDS sufferers in poor countries still have no access to antiretroviral drug treatment because the U.S. continues to block funding for generic drugs on behalf of Big Pharma.

The U.S. refuses to allow its AIDS funding to pay for drugs that haven’t been explicitly approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In Africa, for example, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) requires that drugs it finances be produced and shipped from the United States.

In 2003, some 3 million people died of AIDS, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly a quarter of Zimbabwe’s population is HIV-positive–with average life expectancy falling from 57 years in 1990 to 34 years in 2002.

The pharmaceutical industry has also been busy at home, spending an unprecedented $109 million on 800 lobbyists to ensure that the Medicare drug benefit passed by Congress in late 2003 specifically prohibits Medicare from bargaining with drug companies for lower prices on behalf of its elderly beneficiaries.

More recently, the pharmaceutical lobby convinced Congress to ban the re-importation of prescription drugs into the U.S. at cheaper prices, forcing the uninsured and distraught seniors to pay prices up to double those imported from Canada.

The Bush administration’s FDA commissioner Lester Crawford even claimed the ban is essential to national security, telling the Associated Press that “cues from chatter” were cause for concern about a food- or drug-borne attack by terrorists–possibly from imported prescription drugs.

To improve its image, Pfizer, the world’s largest drug company, has launched a new program–with the chirpy name “Pfizer’s Pfriends”–promising to offer uninsured Americans discount prices on prescription drugs. But the 43 million uninsured Americans should not expect real relief, since the uninsured now pay higher prices than those with insurance for both prescription drugs and medical care.

As the Financial Times remarked of Pfizer’s Pfriends, “It is a bit like department stores: first they raise prices, then they drop them and call it a ‘sale.’” John Kerry has made health care a centerpiece of his campaign rhetoric, declaring, “Seniors are cutting their pills in half, and we’re told the best we can do for them is a Medicare bill that’s riddled with waste and handouts to drug companies.”

Yet Kerry was not even present to vote for or against the Medicare bill last year. And while the pharmaceutical industry has made clear its preference for another Bush term, Kerry’s biggest backers come from the banking and finance industry, with Goldman Sachs at the top of the heap–hardly advocates of health care reform.

The biggest pharmaceutical companies, in fact, are ready to hedge their bets on a Kerry administration, as evidenced at the Democratic National Convention in Boston last month–where Howard Dean danced the night away at a lavish party hosted by Johnson & Johnson and Ziggy Marley performed at a $600,000 beach party at the New England Aquarium, paid for by 20 big corporations, including pharmaceutical and tobacco firms.

Drugs firms Merck and Novartis, each donated over $500,000 to the Democratic Convention host committee. The pharmaceutical companies can rest assured that, whoever wins in November, their profit margins–consistently at or near the top of the Fortune 500–will remain sacred, as they have for the last 25 years.

As demonstrators chanted at last month’s International AIDS Conference in Thailand, “Patients, not Patents”–corporate profits are at the heart of the health care crisis.

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