Although much can be said about the problems in America’s health care system, perhaps even more can be said about a huge road block in health care effectiveness the world over: pharmaceutical companies. Through a variety of minute techniques that the average person may not even think about, pharmaceutical companies are able to pluck the pockets of both the American poor and wealthy alike. Moreover, due to the citizens of some impoverished nations having no finances to sweep up, some pharmaceutical companies simply refuse to make their products available in some countries.
Yet, before pharmaceutical companies can deny lifesaving medicine to Third World countries on the macro level, they need foot soldiers to peddle their products on a smaller scale. Previously, Shahram Ahari had been one such foot soldier when he worked dutifully at his job as a pharmaceutical sales representative for Eli Lilly and Company. In 2007, the company reported profits of $18.6 billion, which could not have been accomplished without workers like Ahari.
However, Ahari has now chosen a different path in his life. He stepped away from the pharmaceutical game and currently spreads awareness about the methods that he had once used. Recently, Ahari gave a presentation at UC Irvine entitled, “Is Your Campus on Drugs? A Divergence of Interests.” The school’s chapter of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM) hosted the event. This group is dedicated to ensuring that medication is accessible in poor countries, and that research is conducted on neglected diseases. Ahari also spent ample time discussing the effectiveness of marketing, which allows pharmaceutical companies to hock their products at inflated prices, regardless of quality.
“Marketing is a remarkably effective tool of manipulation. It influences you beyond reason,” Ahari said.
Unfortunately, as Ahari discussed, most consumers, including doctors, do not believe that they are affected by marketing. Ahari demonstrated this by giving statistics of how many doctors admitted that their decision to prescribe a certain drug was influenced by marketing. Only 1 percent of doctors admitted to this. However, when doctors were asked about how marketing influenced the decision of their peers, the number skyrocketed.
In selling their drugs to both doctors and consumers, drug sale representatives also heavily play into customers’ guilt. They do this through the concept of reciprocity. It is not coincidental that drug sale representatives offer items like pens, tote bags and clipboards to their potential clients.
Luckily, the American public is highly skeptical. Ahari stated that researchers for pharmaceutical companies are among the least trusted sources that Americans turn to when an emergency occurs. However, pharmaceutical companies have a way to get around this. According to Ahari, pharmaceutical companies turn to researchers from academic institutions in the case of an emergency.
“We select specifically … people who are product loyal,” Ahari said.
Because of the emphasis placed on product loyalty, pharmaceutical companies have a sturdy safeguard to prevent the spread of negative information. Furthermore, if a pharmaceutical company loses faith in one of its speakers, it can replace them at a drop of a hat. After all, $18.6 billion provides a robust infrastructure. Yet, while pharmaceutical companies may use less than honest techniques on the American public, they are not selling placebos. They may be selling products of inferior quality at a heightened cost, but if an American is sick, he or she can generally have access to the medicine he or she needs. Citizens of Third World countries often do not have this luxury.
Although, much of the world yearns for medical aid, these cries go unheard. Beginning in the late 1950s, researchers at Yale University developed a number of antiviral and anticancer compounds that led to the development of d4T, or stavudine, a powerful drug used to treat HIV. The drug was sold to the pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb, which released it on the market in 1994. Yet, the regions of the world where HIV is most prevalent, found themselves unable to purchase the medicine, so Bristol-Myers Squibb simply chose not to market the medicine in those parts of the world.
Still, hope persisted in 2001 when Yale researchers stood up and took back the work that their colleagues had done by forming UAEM and lobbying Yale officials to allow for the production of a generic product that could be sold for use in the Third World. Today, UAEM continues to provide a voice for the voiceless. However, as long as pharmaceutical companies have tunnel vision relating to profit making, those most in need of aid may not receive it.
Daniel Johnson is a fourth-year literary journalism and film and media studies double-major. He can be reached at email@example.com.