Separation of Church and State OpEd by John Mack

The pharmaceutical industry is losing the PR battle. “Our industry needs better PR and PhRMA isn’t getting it done right now,” said a respondent to a recent PMN survey.

Many in the industry blame the media and are critical of the sensationalist tactics of evening news programs: Some even suggest that many media stories about the drug industry “go beyond the bounds of objective reporting and cross over to unfair bashing.” Should the pharmaceutical industry retaliate and punish “critical” media by withdrawing ad money?

Every industry has to deal with negative PR, but I don’t think that “critical” media should be punished by withdrawing ad money as some have recommended.

One problem is that it would be very difficult to limit the tactic once the hounds have been let out. “Biased” is in the eyes of the beholder. A marketer is likely to consider biased any report that falls short of a ringing endorsement!

Another problem is that pharma itself deserves much of the blame.

However, there is a bigger issue here than who is to blame for all the negative PR pharma is getting lately. The issue is really the integrity of the separation of church and state in the media-protecting editorial content from being influenced by advertising.

The pharmaceutical industry should not be caught undermining the “Chinese wall” between editorial content and advertising that reputable media take pains to maintain. Especially considering that the pharma industry itself has been accused of a less than stellar record of maintaining separation between education and promotion to physicians and consumers.

When CME is attached to pharmaceutical-sponsored physician education, for example, a firewall between support (the ad) and the program (the content) is absolutely imperative. The ACCME (Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education) 2004 Updated Standards for Commercial Support reminds CME providers and commercial supporters that the goal of CME is to enhance physicians’ ability to care for patients. Accredited providers have the responsibility for certifying that CME is independent of commercial interests.

Just as pharma companies should not undermine CME by trying to influence the content of physician education it sponsors, they should not undermine our independent news organizations by using their ad dollars to influence the news content.

Vol. 4, No.4: April 2005
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