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Are Drug Companies Really out to Kill Us?

Welcome to The Wonderful World of Stu!

Ahhhhh, those evil drug companies.

Why are they so intent on killing us just to score an extra private jet for their personal fleets? Why do they create medications just to slowly incapacitate our bowels and make our pancreas explode? Why do people believe this crap?

Let’s think of the business model of a big drug company for a second. They spend years and years and billions of dollars developing products with no promise or timeline for success. If they discover something that works, they get bogged down in years of bureaucratic red tape. They have a very limited prospective customer base (very few people without irritable bowel syndrome are buying the drugs created to treat it). And when a product finally gets on the market they are flooded both with complaints that they should be giving it away for free, and with lawsuits claiming they never should have made it in the first place.

For the love of your politically correct deity of choice, why do we screw with these people?

Drug companies make their money helping people. That’s the definition of the pinnacle of capitalism.

Take your unbridled greed and sue somebody who isn’t trying to stop flesh-eating bacteria. Go sue starburst for giving you far too few of the pink ones. That’s legitimate. Just stop discouraging the people who want to make grandma’s tumor go away. Let’s use an example so unpopular it can only be attempted by someone as unpopular as me.

Do you remember Fen-phen?

It was a weight loss drug combo produced by drug giant Wyeth, a company since folded into Pfizer. Fen-phen was pulled off the market after a mayo clinic report linked it to heart valve disease. The finding was based on 24 people. In 1996 alone, doctors wrote 18 million prescriptions for it.

How many people had Fen-phen helped avoid obesity? How many heart attacks did it prevent? How many could it have prevented?

A new England journal of medicine editorial estimated the benefit to risk ratio at 20 to 1. For every one person who died, the drugs saved twenty. Also, they found that while the risk of getting heart valve disease was increased, there was a 5,000% better chance of a non-smoker getting lung cancer.

However, not all studies were so optimistic, and the combination of the media, the government, and some real side effects, doomed the drugs. Once they were off the market, the lawsuits started flowing.

To get some cash from Wyeth, you had to show two things: 1) you were sick, and 2) you took the medicine.

What they did not require was for you to provide any indication that the meds actually caused the sickness. If that decision wasn’t bad enough, Wyeth also figured that the constant testing and paperwork would be too much to handle. So they let any “qualified doctor” do the required echocardiogram and submit the forms. The lure of easy class action payouts and quick settlements literally created an entire industry.

Lawyers spent millions in advertising trying to excavate clients. Law firms were created solely to handle Fen-phen cases, some employing sonographers and buying their own echocardiogram equipment. Lawyers began awarding bonuses to doctors for each time they “found” someone they could submit to the class action. Law firm employees trained sonographers on how to set the echocardiograph dials to make the tests look as bad as possible.

One Dallas attorney even set up his own echocardiogram company. Law firms were holding mass echocardiogram sessions in hotel rooms. Companies developed mobile echocardiogram centers, the “meals on wheels” of heart valve testing. Finally, Wyeth was tipped off by a nurse and began to check the work more closely. The fraud they found hasn’t been seen since The Crying Game, which is such an outdated reference, here’s a quick explainer of the relevant scene in the movie.

There’s some really pointless terrorism plot that you don’t need to know about. But there’s a guy and a girl, and they start making out. The guy runs his hand up her skirt, but she stops him and they do some other stuff instead. The next day they get together again. This time, she has a robe on. When he goes to remove it, he finds out that she’s… a dude. And then I think he vomits in the sink or something.

Ok, back to the Fen-phen fraud: one group of 4,600 claims was examined and over 60% were disqualified. Another group of 968 claims was examined, 70% were disqualified. One doctor was mysteriously finding more than twelve times the number of victims than they found in a blind study. Of 1,500 claims in a Mississippi group, less than 50 were legit.

The ringleader of this scam made fake medication labels to prove they took the medication. Investigators found people who had actually been fooled into believing they had heart disease when they didn’t. One was so convinced that she had unnecessary valve replacement surgery to correct a problem that didn’t exist.

But no one beats Cheryl Yvonne Barnett.

She developed her heart valve problems after taking the drugs for about four months in 1989. The only problem was that the drugs weren’t even available until 1996. Also, the doctor she said prescribed the meds didn’t exist. Oh, and the pharmacy she said gave her the medication was a parking lot. The judge ordered Cheryl and her lawyer to pay about $10,000 in damages for filing the bogus claim. However, I doubt her law firm O’quinn, Laminack & Pirtle from Houston was too worried about it. Cheryl was just one of 3,500 clients they had brought to the Fen-phen money party, one of whom won a verdict of $1,013,853,000. Yes… one billllllllllion dollars.

In the end, the whole fiasco cost a reported $21 billion. What was their entire profit on Fen-phen before they pulled it? About $200 million, or less than 1% of the litigation lottery they funded. Now if they can only create 104 consecutive wildly successful drugs with no lawsuits, they’ll be even!!! Damn these evil drug companies.

So to review!

  • Big pharma is not out to gouge you for money and kill you...
  • Profit motives are fine. And helping people is fine. But telling a dude you’re not a dude until they remove your robe and find out that you are a dude - is not fine.
  • And if anyone has any Fen-phen left, I’ll take it off your hands... I could use it. As you can tell.

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