CNN's O'Brien Links Drug Prices with R&D Budgets

     The media rarely, if ever, worry about lawsuits sapping drug companies’ ability to fund research and development (R&D) for new drugs. Yet Soledad O’Brien found cause for concern with news that Wal-Mart will be offering generic drugs to customers for only $4 a bottle.


     “The company will sell generic versions of as many as 300 drugs for as low as four bucks a prescription. Most of these drugs cost between 10 and 30 dollars a prescription,” she noted. And because Wal-Mart “has a reputation of driving down prices in almost every category it touches,” the prices of generic drugs at other stores might come down, reporter Gerri Willis suggested.


     That led anchor Soledad O’Brien to worry that the good news for consumers would have “ripple effects” such as a “loss of R&D dollars.”


    “But generic drugs are really just ripped-off versions of drugs that somebody else spent a lot of money coming up with in the first place,” Willis reminded O’Brien.


     Even so, O’Brien’s concern for the drug industry’s ability to fund research for groundbreaking new drugs is a marked departure from standard reporting on the drug industry. In reality, it can cost a drugmaker as much as $800 million just to get a new drug to market, though reporters have overlooked that fact in favor of complaining about pharmaceutical advertising.


     On the February 20 “In the Money,” panelist Jennifer Westhoven repeated the claim from liberal Tufts University’s Dr. Jerome Kassirer that about 90 percent of pharmaceutical marketing “goes to wining and dining doctors.” Westhoven and her panelists ignored the fact that in 2003, the amount spent on direct-to-consumer advertising by members of PhRMA, a pharmaceutical industry group, amounted to only one-tenth of that spent on research and development.


     Kassirer even took issue with free drug samples that drug company representatives often leave for physicians to give to patients on a trial basis. “Any time you use those free samples, then the doctor gets used to using that particular drug and that raises the cost of care,” Kassirer complained.


    None of the CNN crew paused to question Kassirer’s logic or whether his opposition to free samples might hurt patients unable to afford prescription medicine.