Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

VIEW FROM AMERICA: Legal Drugs War Is Fought Just as Hard




America is fighting not one but two parallel and exceedingly costly drug wars.


One is against suppliers of mood-altering illegal substances. The other is among suppliers of legal drugs, with particularly savage competition in the market for lust-promoting and depression-fighting substances. The suppliers seem to be winning both wars despite the occasional setback. And the cost to the nation - measured in bulging jails, drug-associated violence, clogged courts, the rising cost of health care and a growing uninsured population - is huge.


To give an idea of what's at stake, shares of Eli Lilly & Co. dove 12 percent in a single day this week despite a 12 percent rise in net income in the first quarter and sales that reached a record $2.26 billion, up 8 percent from the first quarter of 1998. No matter, investors punished Lilly because of a 4 percent drop in first-quarter sales of its showboat drug, Prozac.


The market was mercilessly indifferent to the company's explanation that Prozac sales were artificially depressed because big purchasers had stocked up last year in anticipation of a price increase.


Meanwhile, Bob Dole has enlisted as a soldier in the war for the drug dollar by appearing in tasteful commercials that break down old barriers to discussing flaccid penises on television. When a grown man goes on TV to confess his impotence, we can guess the huge profits involved. Television, once a world of hemorrhoid cures, laxatives and remedies for vaginal dryness, has now become saturated with drug commercials that seek to create new demand for remedies in the hope people will nag their doctors into prescribing them. The side effects are vividly described even when they include such ghastly experiences as nausea, incontinence, sleepiness, sleeplessness, incoherence, constipation, diarrhea and uncontrollable itching.


The war for the drug dollar may be contributing positively to public awareness but much of the stuff being so expensively promoted does not involve life-threatening illnesses. Toenail fungus is not even one of our leading killers but in the drug trade, the profits justify lavish TV outlays.


Pharmaceutical companies defend steeply rising prices by citing the need to recoup the huge investments they must make in developing and testing new products and paying for lawsuits. Now, I suppose, they must add exploding promotional costs. Lilly, for instance, announced it will step up its campaign of direct contacts with physicians to remind them of Prozac's wonders.


I guess we don't have to ask why prescription drug prices have risen 5.4 percent in the past year while overall health care costs advanced 3.4 percent and all consumer prices were up less than 2 percent.


And do not imagine the drug makers welcome programs that would make their products more available or affordable to sick people. They have been the chief opponents of extending Medicare coverage to prescription drugs and attacked the Clinton administration's new proposal to give old people up to $1,700 a year for prescription drugs. Obviously they have calculated that whatever they might gain in new business would be offset by the federal government's ability to bargain for lower prices.


Robert Reno is a columnist with Newsday.