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Here Comes Pharmaheit 9/11
Published on Sunday, March 26, 2006 by the Telegraph/UK
Here Comes Pharmaheit 9/11
Controversial film maker Michael Moore is targeting the drugs companies
by Sylvia Pfeifer

"Send me your health care horror stories…" reads the appeal. The stark request heads a letter from Michael Moore, the controversial filmmaker, published on his website last month which asks for real-life examples of people's bad experiences of hospitals, insurance companies and drug makers.

Renowned for his documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 in which he took on the Bush Administration over the war in Iraq, Moore's latest target is the health care industry.

Work on the film, Sicko, has been in progress since 2004 and it is finally expected to be premiered later this year but already speculation about its content has put the industry on the offensive.

If executives at health care companies worry they might come off badly in the film, Moore's letter leaves little doubt: "Have you ever found yourself getting ready to file for bankruptcy because you can't pay your kid's hospital bill, and then you say to yourself: 'Boy, I sure would like to be in Michael Moore's health care movie!'?"

Moore says he will read every letter: "…if you have been abused in any way by this sick, greedy, grubby system and it has caused you or your loved ones great sorrow and pain, let me know."

Executives in the US admit the forthcoming film is a cause for concern but most are resigned to the fact that Moore is unlikely to take a balanced approach.

"It [the film] is a concern… but Michael Moore has very little credibility with mainstream Americans," says Ken Johnson, the senior vice president of the trade group Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America. "For every horror story Michael Moore produces, we can produce 1,000 success stories, but he's not interested in them."

Nevertheless, it is not just Moore who is on the attack. Other films such as The Constant Gardener, based on the novel by John Le Carré about corruption in the industry in Africa and which won Britain's Rachel Weisz an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress last month, and the book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, by a former Pfizer employee, have only added to the industry's woes.

Actual drug scandals, such as the withdrawal by Merck of Vioxx, its pain reliever, two years ago after concerns about side-effects and which has triggered widespread litigation against the company, have not helped the industry's relations with the public.

Most executives privately admit that industry still has problems communicating what it does and that it is not just plain greedy. According to Johnson, unrelated to Moore's film, the industry has itself become more aggressive in responding to criticism.

Among other things, the association has signed Montel Williams, an Emmy-winning syndicated talk show host, to help promote awareness of existing drug assistance programmes. The efforts have paid off: according to Johnson, in the past six months, the industry has improved its "favourability" rating from 45 per cent to 54 per cent.

Companies have also become more proactive. Glaxo SmithKline, Europe's biggest drug producer, for example, has launched a Value of Medicine campaign under which its sales representatives are encouraged to promote positive aspects of the industry.

A spokesman says the thinking behind the campaign was put in place before the reform of the Medicare system - the state-run system which provides coverage for the elderly - which took effect this year.

GSK has also launched a new advertising campaign in the US. Catchlines such as "It's easier to put someone on the moon than to develop a drug" and "Today's medicines finance tomorrow's miracles" are designed to promote awareness of the work drugs companies do.

The industry faces less of an uphill battle in the UK, where its image is significantly better than in the US. A spokesman for AstraZeneca notes that "even in the time that Michael Moore has been researching this film, there has been a step-change in the way companies are approaching this area of corporate responsibility.

European-based companies are maybe slightly ahead of the game. The degree of transparency and information out there is changing quite dramatically."

One example of increased transparency across the industry has been a global initiative to set up a clinical trials register.

An agreement on making information on all forthcoming and on-going clinical trials available on the internet was reached last summer and doctors and patients can now access all relevant information on potential new medicines.

Nevertheless, such initiatives are unlikely to deter Moore. As he says in his letter: "I promise you that with Sicko we will do our best to give you not only a great movie, but a chance to bring down this evil empire, once and for all."

Copyright © Telegraph Group Limited 2006


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