Making Profits on Life


Last week, the drug company Merck announced that it would pay $4.85 billion to end the Vioxx lawsuits. $4.85 billion. Think about that for a minute. Now, add this piece—the company is paying billions of dollars even though it’s won several civil cases. Imagine the cost-benefit analysis that must have happened to justify all that money even though they’d won cases. Perhaps the value was seen in ending things quickly what with 47,000 plaintiffs (265 potential class action cases) coming its way.

Beyond this single lawsuit, pharmaceutical companies are perhaps one of the most reviled entities (close behind oil companies) in modern American society. George Merck said, “Medicine is for people, not for profits,” but the profit numbers (link to abstract) generated by pharma seem to belie this statement. However, one can’t ignore the good that they do. So where’s the balance?

In my case, personal experience has proven that my life, and the lives of many I care about, have been impacted by the research and resultant drugs these companies invested in and produced. Do I still flinch on occasion at the bill? Definitely. But if change is needed, what exactly is that change? Does the argument become one similar to what’s going on about the health care industry in general? Do we turn drug research and production over to the government?

Here’s a sticky fact that we’ll probably never be 100% comfortable with: life-saving and life-promoting products and services will continue to be produced and sold by companies looking to make a profit.

We’ve struggled for a long time with the question of whether it’s acceptable to make money off of things that affect peoples’ lives. Besides pharma, both the news and insurance industries get hit for making money off of misery and hardship. Christiane Amanpour, known for her reporting on CBS and CNN, highlighted the conflict between news as a business: “Yes, you are running businesses, and yes, we understand and accept that, but surely there must be a level beyond which profit from news is simply indecent.” (link)

What makes for decent profit? Who determines what’s justifiable when talking about dollars and cents? Maybe the answer is that no logical one exists. If the potential for more money is what drives innovation who’s to say what potential discoveries won’t happen if profit is removed from the equation. Now, before anyone jumps down my throat, I’m open to alternatives. Does the solution include a special tax to cover the cost of researching new drugs, covering the news, and assessing risk?

Sigh. I’m highly doubtful that the solution to the problem involves removing profit or turning things over to the government. Part of the answer lies with the companies, and I don’t know that one. I don’t know how you get them to talk like George Merck did about profit. However, the other part lies with us as individuals.

Living comes with risk, and I think we’ve forgotten that on some levels. Build a house on a flood plain, odds are high that at some point your home might flood. Genetics aren’t kind either, and sometimes our parents pass on nasty ones that make us sick. So who do we blame for life laughing at us while taking potshots that make things unpleasant? The biggest gamble we take is living. Maybe it’s time that we remembered the risk involved and stopped making class-action attorneys millions.



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November 2007
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