Ethical Communication in Drug Companies: Is it Possible?

It actually came as no surprise to me when I read a newly published report on how much money pharmaceutical companies spend on promoting drugs annually (PLoS Medicine, January 2008).  My recent research on the topic of disease branding as a marketing strategy of big pharma had already provided me with enough background to be totally unsurprised by the finding that drug companies actually spend almost twice as much money annually on drug promotion as they do on research.  Twice as much!  Wow, that seemed even a bit much for me to comprehend. 

According to the research published by Gagnon and Lexchin, included as parts of the promotion activities were the following:  providing samples, detailing (drug reps meet with physicians to provide “details” about the drugs, medical meeting sponsorship, e-promotion, journal advertising among other things. 

So, what does this mean from an ethical perspective in general and a PR ethics perspective in particular?  First, it is contrary to the claim that drug companies continue to make about the proportions of money spent on advertising compared to that spent on research.  This conflicting information that is regularly communicated to important publics falls into the general realm of who is telling the truth, as well into the realm of PR ethics for obvious reasons. 

From another ethical perspective, given the enormous profits that are reported annually by big Pharma, it seems that the proactive ethical concept of “doing good” – beneficence –is perhaps being overshadowed by the desire to make more and more money.  Gagnon and Lexchin conclude their paper with a call for “transforming the workings of the industry in the direction of more research and less promotion.”  This has direct implications for public relations and marketing communication professionals.  What do you think?

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