While two hospitals stepped up last week to candidly disclose to the public what went horribly wrong, the pharmaceutical industry's trade group has not been completely forthcoming when boasting to radio audiences about what went right.
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America never bothered to reveal in a radio advertisement that a patient profiled as being miraculously saved by a little-used drug developed to treat a rare disease also happens to work for the Washington-based trade group, Modern Healthcare has learned.
Paid for by the trade group, the advertorials are read by Charles Osgood on "The Osgood File," a syndicated program produced by New York-based Westwood One radio network. PhRMA officials insist that the omission is irrelevant to the undeniable fact that drugs rescued their colleague, Jeff Trewhitt, from death's door just as occupation was irrelevant for the other patients profiled in the campaign, including an asthmatic boy named Jeremy Gutierrez and a schizophrenic named George Santos. But the advertising campaign comes at a time when the embattled industry already is fending off charges that it exaggerates its research and development efforts (July 30, p. 16).
One business ethicist said he believes the trade group has crossed the principled line of good business practice by failing to include that significant piece of information. The breach of public trust is all the more serious because by its very nature the pharmaceutical industry holds a few extra cards over information-starved consumers, said Thomas Donaldson, a professor specializing in business ethics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Because it's virtually impossible to know everything about what goes into their pills, consumers must put a lot of trust in drugmakers, Donaldson said.
"Perhaps if I knew a person was a paid employee, it wouldn't bother me, just as after (I read) a warning label on a drug, but I should have all the information," Donaldson said. "To not disclose the fact that somebody promoting a drug, who people would assume is not connected, is a paid employee of the group putting out the ad is a gross violation of business ethics, in my opinion."
Trewhitt, who has been employed as a spokesman by PhRMA for more than 12 years, is one of 13 patients profiled in the advertorials. Describing Trewhitt only as "a 49-year-old guy who loves hiking and blues concerts," Osgood explained that last year, Trewhitt "had a reason to sing the blues himself" when he was diagnosed with hairy cell leukemia. But thanks to a new drug, Trewhitt is in complete remission, as are 75% of the patients with the same disease, Osgood said.
Neither the drug nor the drugmaker are specifically mentioned in the spot, which carries the tagline: "America's Pharmaceutical Companies. New Medicines. New Hope."
A spokeswoman for Westwood One said neither Osgood nor the producers were aware of the connection between Trewhitt and PhRMA. The profile ran a few times but is off the rotation, she said. She said Osgood was away on vacation and could not be reached, and she refused to comment further.
Trewhitt said he could not be specific on details of the radio campaign, but he described it as a "very modest project" compared with PhMRA's primary advertising campaign that is being run on television and in mass-circulation magazines. He said he did not receive any extra compensation for doing the ad.
He was chosen, he said, primarily because "I certainly was convenient" and the scriptwriter is a close friend who knew his story well. Although it wasn't Trewhitt's idea, he readily agreed to do it when asked, he said.
"My life was saved by an important new medicine that was for a rare disease," Trewhitt said last week. "These are very basic advertorials with one message and one message only: that this is an extremely innovative industry that improves quality of life and saves lives."
Actually, everything Osgood read was true. Trewhitt's miracle drug, Leustatin, is manufactured by Ortho Biotech, a Johnson & Johnson company in Raritan, N.J. The drug, which is no longer under patent protection, has been on the market since about 1993 and has been approved only for the one indication, hairy cell leukemia, said Carol Goodrich, an Ortho Biotech spokeswoman. Sales of the drug in 2000 were a modest $9.6 million, she said.
Trewhitt said that over the course of 11 months, he received two seven-day, three-hour-a-day regimens of the drug, which put him in complete remission. He spent a total of 81/2 days in the hospital and missed only five weeks of work, despite one serious bout with a bacterial infection that landed him in the hospital for six days. His health insurance through PhRMA covered the treatment.
When he was first diagnosed, he said, his oncologist told him, "If you had to get leukemia, you got the right one."
Jackie Cottrell, PhRMA's deputy vice president of public affairs, insisted Trewhitt's employer is irrelevant to the ad's message and that it was never even an issue when the profiles were first discussed.
"Whom he works for had no bearing on the fact that he got a disease like leukemia," Cottrell said. "It never occurred to anybody that it would make a difference to anybody in a 60-second ad. I think it's rather silly."
"It's directly relevant. It's a critical issue and their responsibility," he said. "We've become fairly sophisticated consumers, but in this instance this isn't puffery. This is a case where a person listening to an ad has every reason to assume this is a random success story. Of course, he was chosen because of the success, but it certainly would affect my evaluation of the ad if I knew he was a paid employee. It's a big deal. It's a very big deal."