Prof. Dominique Tobbell of the University of Minnesota has contributed Pills, Power, and Policy: The Struggle for Drug Reform in Cold War America and Its Consequences. She makes two basic points about our struggle today to reform drug policy, in a direction that brings pharmaceutical manufacture, research, and marketing better into line with public health and public interest. The first point is that this struggle is not new; basically the same issues have recurred ever since the end of World War II. The second point is that the pharmaceutical industry has never waged this battle against what it considers burdensome government regulation on its own; it has always had allies among medical organizations and academic physicians who had a strong interest in defending the status quo.
Prof. Tobbell points out that by the mid-1960s, the drug industry had achieved an impressive enough record in fighting off government regulation that the tobacco industry turned to Pharma for advice and help. During all those years, medical practitioners were primed by the AMA to fear the bogeyman of socialized medicine, and academic physicians worried about excessive federal influence over research policies. It was easy to get these fellow travelers on board when Pharma wrapped itself in the mantle of “free enterprise” and presented a less-regulated industry to Congress and to the American public as a bulwark against communism.
In the heady postwar days, when everyone was thrilled with the tremendous advances in antibiotic, hormonal, and psychiatric therapy, the climate of ethical thought was quite different from what reigns today. For example, Prof. Tobbell describes the efforts at the University of Pennsylvania to create a training program in clinical pharmacology in 1955: “Norman Topping, the university’s vice-president in charge of medical affairs, sought to create an institutional structure that would ensure the program could be responsive to the industry’s needs. Indeed, Topping believed the new program should function, essentially, as a service unit for the drug industry.”While today such a stance would at least raise some eyebrows, apparently no one gave it a second glance in the 1950s.
Similarly, when the National Academy of Sciences formed the Drug Research Board in 1963, to help conduct the massive amount of research required to implement the new FDA amendments Congress had just passed to require that drugs be shown to be effective as well as safe, some in Congress looked askance at the inclusion of scientists with strong industry ties. The Board basically pooh-poohed any such concerns, insisting that it was a great advantage to have these scientists as part of the effort because of their inside knowledge and policy smarts. Conflict of interest—who, us?
One theme that I have addressed at some length in earlier posts—most recently:http://brodyhooked.blogspot.com/2014/03/a-bit-of-history-louis-lasagna-and.html
--is the impact of the ideology that I prefer to call economism and others call neoliberalism on today’s Pharma policy. Prof. Tobbell was kind enough to respond to an e-mail query, since I noted that the word “neoliberalism” is virtually absent from her volume. Consistent with her thesis, she states that the anti-government-regulation, pro-free-market stance that the drug industry has adopted was present all through the 1950s and 1960s. When neoliberalism/economism entered the US political discourse in a big way in the middle to late 1970s, Pharma was happy to hitch its wagon to that rising star, just as it was happy to jump on the anticommunist bandwagon in earlier decades; but one cannot say that neoliberalism played a major formative role in Pharma’s policy or strategic thinking.
Dominique A. Tobbell, Pills, Power, and Policy: The Struggle for Drug Reform in Cold War America and Its Consequences. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press/Milbank Books on Health and the Public, 2012.