Big Pharma Scrabble

scrabMy cousin Oxymandias (not his real name) works at GlaxoSmithKline as a pharmaceutical salesman, better known as a drug rep. Most days he could also be called a delivery boy for Panera Bread. You see, Oxymandias has a big quota and a large territory, and his continued employment depends on doctors prescribing the drugs he represents (his main product: Advair, a remedy for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.) And to gain access to the doctors he must influence, Oxymandias has to endear himself to them and their staffs regularly and often by bringing bagels, cream cheese, coffee and tea, compliments of GSK. This approach to marketing, promoting and selling drugs always seemed smarmy to me – amounting to little more than a transparent albeit cheap bribe to the doctor for 3 minutes out of his or her busy schedule to hear yet another pitch on why Advair should be prescribed liberally to anyone who has ever coughed. (Sidebar: Following a real bribery scandal in China, GSK recently announced they would no longer pay doctors to promote its products, nor would they tie compensation of sales representatives to the number of prescriptions doctors write. How the decision affects Oxymandias remains to be seen, but he’s sweating out the likelihood of getting the axe.)

Although a bag of breakfast products seems a negligible expense, the long-standing strategy of Big Pharma to spend nearly as much on marketing drugs as it does on R&D to develop them strikes me as a misplaced priority. The industry spent $4B in 2010 on advertising to convince people to ask their doctors if XYZ drug is right for them, and another $27B (6x the ad budget) to influence doctors to indulge the inquiries of patients demanding the miracle cures they saw on TV. How much of this commerce is completely misplaced? How many healthy people who watch a Big Pharma commercial immediately feel the symptoms of actors paid to portray ordinary people suffering from an esoteric malady? With the price of drugs growing to ridiculous heights (an annual supply of the cancer drug Gleevec wholesales for $76,740 in the U.S.) should pharmaceutical companies spend millions to convince middle-aged men that they must take a daily pill so as to be ready on a moment’s notice to bang their wives or girlfriends?

And why does the name of virtually every drug contain an X, Y, Z or a V?

I suspect the purpose of these exotic-sounding contrived names is a marketing ploy to impart the illusion that the drug is some kind of supernatural conjuring of artificially-engineered molecules developed on 23rd century supercomputers. Aspirin, Tums, Absorbine Jr., Preparation H; these names exude the crackerbarrel charm of a 1900s elixir – capable of delivering ephemeral comfort to life’s ordinary aches and pains, but clearly not up to the task of vanquishing the complex diseases of a modern world. By bestowing names on drugs that sound like alien invaders from outer space, pharmaceutical companies seek to coerce people into believing they’re otherworldly, infallible cures.

Now imagine if these drug names were allowed in a Scrabble competition.


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