Thursday, December 10, 2009

How Not to do PR for your Drug Firm

If you have been thinking about going into business as a public relations flack, and hoped to do a lot of work with drug and biotech companies, here's a few tips on what not to do.

The New York Times:
--has noted the questions raised by a cancer drug called Folotyn, manufactured by Allos Therapeutics. The drug received FDA approval back in September and the company plans to start marketing it in January. It was approved for a very rare cancer, peripheral T-cell lymphoma, which currently has no effective treatment, and that affects about 5600 Americans annually.

The company plans to charge $30,000 a month for this drug. Commonly used cancer drugs such as Avastin and Erbitux, for example, also accused of being over-priced, cost $8800 and $10,000 a month by comparison, respectively, says the Times. Moreover, the drug has been shown to shrink tumors but not to have any impact on mortality statistics.

The Times quotes James V. Caruso, chief commercial officer at Allos (whatever that is--do companies have non-commercial officers?), as defending the price by saying among other things that the cancer is so aggressive that no patient will be taking it for that many months, anyway.

So now we come to our lesson in PR strategies. If they ask you to defend the exhorbitant price of your cancer drug...

Do say:
"Our treatment costs about the same as other treatments for other cancers."
"Many millions of dollars were spent doing the research needed to develop this drug."
"It's hard to put a price tag on hope as we continue to wage the war on cancer."
"This particular cancer is very rare and so the only way to bring the drug to market was to increase the price per patient, much as we hated to do that."

Do not say:
"Our drug is such a rotten drug, and people die so quickly with it, that they won't be around to spend that much money for very long anyway."

Hat tip also to PostScript and Jonas Hines for the original news and his own wry comment.


Roy M. Poses MD said...

See our take on Health Care Renewal here:

Also best not to mention that:
- the drug appears to be only a minor chemical modification of an old, cheap drug (methotrexate)
- the company out-sources the actual manufacture of the drug
- although the company has never had a salable drug before this one, its yearly administration, marketing etc budget was as big as its total research and development budget
- the latest year's marketing and administration budget was as big as the whole research and development budget for this drug
- the top 5 executives' compensation use up fully 10% of the total company budget

Marilyn Mann said...


I agree his statement sounds a little silly. I think it's important, however, not to advocate for a deceptive PR strategy. It appears to me that the following statement would not be accurate:

"Our treatment costs about the same as other treatments for other cancers."

It is true that there are some cancer drugs that are very expensive. However, are there any other cancer drugs that cost 30,000/month?

Howard Brody said...

Marilyn: You remind me once again (when will I ever learn) of the dangers of e-sarcasm. The actual intention in the post was to suggest that ALL the suggested PR statements were bogus-- only at least some of them might work upon the unwary. Thanks, Howard

Marilyn Mann said...

Oh. Well, you can delete my comment then.

Michael Kirsch, M.D. said...

This is an outrage. Beyond the stratospheric cost of the FDA approved drug, what does it do? It shrinks tumors, in only a minority of cases. Shrinking a tumor may make an oncologist feel better, but it usually doesn't make a patient feel better. Folotyn has been shown to have no mortality advantage. I am mystified on what basis it was approved. $30,000 a month for a drug that doesn't add quality or quantity of life. Sounds like medicine at it's worst.