Friday, February 9, 2007

Following the Money Trail: Much Quicker for the Media Today

One theme I expect to be taking up frequently in this blog is: are we seeing, today, a shift in public and political sentiment against the drug industry, so that momentum is increasing for the sorts of reforms recommended in HOOKED? Or is everything pretty much the same except for occasional blips?

I'll offer as a bit of evidence in favor of momentum how the press responded the Texas Gov. Perry's executive order last week that made Texas the first state in the nation to mandate immunizing preteen girls for the human papillomavirus (HPV), that causes most cases of cervical cancer:

This Houston Chronicle article comes from the Associated Press, whose reporter, Liz Peterson, apparently had no trouble connecting the dots. The same article that mentioned the executive order simultaneously shone the light on two key connections--first, Perry's ties to Merck, the manufacturer of the vaccine; and second, Perry's connections with Women in Government and how that organization had received funding from Merck to push the adoption of the vaccine.

Contrast this with press coverage of the debate over Medicare Part D in 2003. As recounted in HOOKED, p. 236, when the AARP opposed some features of the bill, notably the prohibition against direct Medicare negotiations with the drug industry for volume discounts, it found itself opposed by organizations called United Seniors Association, 60 Plus Association, and Seniors Coalition. At first the media reported as if there was a genuine division of opinion among the elderly. As best as I recall, it took the press some time to figure out that these other groups were all "astroturf" (fake grass roots). They were funded solely by PR firms that were in turn funded by the drug companies; they had no offices and no membership lists.

It appears that some things the drug industry used to get away with routinely are now much more difficult to pull off--more people are on to them. None of which answers the question: is it a good or a bad thing to mandate the use of the HPV vaccine? I'll vote with the American Academy of Pediatrics that it is probably premature at this point to have mandatory requirements. But drug industry money has so polluted both the political and the scientific processes, that once it became known that Merck was behind this effort, the scientific pros and cons were quickly lost sight of. That's why I argue that it's actually in the industry's interest, as well as the public's, to clean up this mess pronto.

Incidentally, while I have not done a lot of research on the term "astroturf," I assume that the use of fake grass inside domed stadiums began with the Houston Astrodome, so it is nice to see this language coming back home to Texas where it began.

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