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Collateral damage

Right to reply: CI asserts that pharma has a long way to go to win back public trust

Writing in the British Medical Journal in 2004, Dr Chandra M Gulhati argued that the pharmaceutical industry depends on a tried and tested, so-called '3C' formula: `convince if possible, confuse if necessary, and corrupt if nothing else works'.

The vitriolic and baseless attack on the Consumers International (CI) report Branding the Cure, in A Tough Return (Pharmaceutical Marketing, July 2006), has shown, sadly, that Dr Gulhati may still be right.

CI is the global federation of consumer organisations, representing more than 230 agencies across 113 countries. Branding the Cure, published in June 2006, assesses the European marketing practices of the 20 leading pharmaceutical firms in the world against the corporate social responsibility (CSR) standards set by several different industry codes.

The report found that at least 17 of the 20 companies studied are regularly violating codes of practice on drug promotion in Europe. Some 18 of the companies do not have an explicit public policy on disease awareness campaigns and only one had a CSR policy on interactions with patient groups.

In relation to the UK's Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry's (ABPI) Code of Practice specifically, the report revealed 972 violations by the top 20 companies between 2002 and 2005.

These findings are no doubt difficult for many in the industry to stomach, but the confused and ill-researched assertions in the article won't make the arguments disappear.

Indeed, it is exactly this type of response that leaves consumers feeling patronised and exploited by big business and by the spin doctors they employ to promote their products.

A brief matter of clarification: as PM itself rightly pointed out, Branding the Cure's comparative research was not conducted by journalists, but was in fact undertaken by the International Consumer Research & Testing organisation (ICRT).

This highly respected sister organisation to CI is an independent professional research group and has tested consumer goods and services worldwide for more than 15 years. Consumer magazines in more than 33 countries publish ICRT findings, reaching a global subscription-paying audience of more than 11 million readers (not including online subscribers).

The methodology used for Branding the Cure is stated clearly in the report, and at www.consumersinternational.org/pharma where the detailed test criteria, along with the original questionnaires sent to the drug companies' headquarters, can also be viewed.

Transparency is key
CI did not set out to vilify or further discredit the pharmaceutical industry. The intention was to examine the marketing practices of the world's leading drug firms on behalf of an increasing number of sceptical consumers in Europe, and to propose positive changes that would rebuild the declining trust and confidence in the sector.

Access to transparent, independently verifiable information about goods and services is a fundamental consumer right, as well as a founding principle of CSR. This is becoming increasingly important to consumers with regard on to the pharma industry, as companies find new ways to influence consumer opinion. Transparency about the sponsorship of patient pressure groups, the funding of disease awareness campaigns and the provision of continuing medical education to professionals are all legitimate areas of concern for consumers.

Branding the Cure has shown the pharma industry is complacent too often about releasing information to the public and, at worst, has a complete disregard for transparency - despite its claims of support for the principles of corporate social responsibility.

Keeping quiet
Although clearly not fully understanding the report or its methodology, A Tough Return has touched on one issue that merits serious consideration: the lack of drug company engagement.

In a previous Pharmaceutical Marketing article (In the Public Eye, March 2004) by the same author, it is argued that pharma companies must engage with the public and take CSR seriously. So it was a pity that in the July issue the reluctance of drug companies to engage with CI during the research was seen as a sign of CI's lack of impartiality.

In fact, this represents the clearest possible indication of the problem CI raised. Rather than refuse to talk, drug companies should equip themselves to respond to public requests for information in a transparent and accessible manner.

CI is accredited to speak exclusively on behalf of the world's consumers at international governing bodies, such as the World Trade Organisation, World Health Organisation, United Nations and International Standards Organisation (ISO).

If the pharmaceutical industry really finds it unacceptable to engage with CI then the only reputation brought into question is its own.

Openness needed
CI acknowledges that the ABPI Code is one of the most stringent in operation. That is why our researchers used it as a benchmark to assess the quality of other national codes.

However, the evidence shows that self-regulation of drug promotion is not proving to be strong enough to ensure adequate consumer protection.

Open and independent monitoring of the industry would be a first step towards ensuring an acceptable level of consumer protection, as well as boosting public confidence in the industry.

Confidence in the intentions of pharma companies would also be bolstered by industry support for truly independent disease awareness campaigns.

A standard line from agencies is that drug companies are deeply concerned about the lack of available consumer information on disease. If this is indeed the case, why not begin with the establishment of an independent body responsible for impartial public disease awareness, instead of ploughing cash into the coffers of PR agencies that are driven by column inches and personal financial gain?

Heart of the matter
The fervent attack on CI in the July issue of Pharmaceutical Marketing is indicative of a problem that the pharma industry needs to understand: that this sort of response simply fuels the negative public perception of the industry.

Senior managers of drug companies must recognise that times are changing. Which stance do you think consumers and regulators will believe? The spin of PR agencies defending companies from criticism they fuel with their own hype, or the measured voices of industry insiders and concerned medical professionals who know the industry best?

CI prefers to listen to the many insiders who say we got it right. We also believe that there needs to be constructive dialogue and engagement between consumers and business. That has been the essence of the consumer movement's international work for years, and it is rare that CI finds it necessary to communicate solely through the media.

CSR is a business critical issue; it is not philanthropy and it is certainly not a PR exercise. If the pharmaceutical industry wants to be seen to take CSR seriously, transparency is essential and the codes of conduct must be enforced effectively and monitored independently.

The challenge for the pharma industry is to transform its maligned reputation and convince consumers of its intentions by installing best CSR practices at the heart of its business. Talking to consumer groups might just be an opportunity, not a threat. Why not try it?

The author
Luke Upchurch is the head of media at Consumers International, a federation of consumer organisations

2nd September 2008

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