The Multinational Monitor

  July/August 2002 - VOLUME 23 - NUMBER 7&8


To the editor:

In re: your June editorial, "Stripping Away Big Pharma's Fig Leaf:"

You wrote that the elusive facts on the costs of developing new drugs -- too often including those more hazardous, sometimes lethally, and no more effective than old ones -- could be simply determined "if the big drug companies were to open their books and reveal their actual investments in research and development."

They will never, ever open their books -- voluntarily. We will find out what are their actual investments in research and development only if Congress forces them to come clean. We found out about such matters 40 years ago thanks to a stunning, subpoena-empowered, 2 1/2-year and now mostly forgotten investigation led by the late Senator Estes Kefauver, D-Tennessee, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary's antitrust subcommittee.

He found out things like this, as I recalled in a Washington Post Outlook article in February 2001:

  • The 22 largest pharmaceutical manufacturers were spending 24 cents of every revenue dollar on promotion -- approximately four times what they were spending on research.
  • Schering's markup on a drug for menopausal disorders was 7,079 percent. Schering had neither invented nor developed the drug, estradiol progynon; rather, Schering bought it in bulk from a French pharmaceutical house. Sixty tablets contained 11.7 cents worth of the drug; Schering charged pharmacists $8.40.
  • Rhone-Polenc of France invented the potent tranquilizer Sparine and licensed drug companies in other countries to sell it. The U.S. licensee, Wyeth Laboratories, charged U.S. pharmacists $3 for 50 pills; it charged pharmacists in distant Australia 94 cents -- less than one-third as much.

In the last few years, Senators have spoken zillions of words about high drug prices. If they have spoken any at all calling for a new Kefauver-type investigation I haven't heard them. Could that be because they've taken zillions of dollars from drug companies?

Morton Mintz
Chevy Chase, MD