Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that “the pharmaceutical industry is undertaking a makeover of its public image.” (See “Stung by Public Distrust, Drug Makers Seek to Heal Image“; 8/26/2005)

The recent decision against Merck in the first Vioxx liability case in Texas has made a makeover a high priority among pharma execs. Arthur Higgins, chairman of Bayer Healthcare, for example, admitted “The decision against Merck…is a clear statement that despite all the good our industry is doing, we’re losing the battle for consumer trust.”

The industry’s strategy to win public trust seems to be all about spin and damage control and nothing about transparency (see “Transparency: A New Voice for Pharma“) or making fundamental changes in how it conducts business and markets its products..

I suggest that the pharma industry needs to make over more than its image. The first thing it should do, in my humble opinion, is to “kill” their lawyers! Of course, I don’t mean literally kill them or even downsize them. They are a necessary evil, I know. But pharma companies should not, for example, have their lawyers write consumer communications like brief summaries! (See “Labeling / TV DTC Revisited.”) Merck’s trial lawyers also did not do such a great job explaining Merck’s scientific evidence (see “Merck Science like ‘wah, wah, wah’ “).

Pharma might also include some lobbyists in their hit list.

“Our industry has been successful in lobbying efforts, avoiding bad legislation and getting good legislation to pass,” says Eli Lilly & Co.’s chief executive, Sidney Taurel. “But we did that at the expense of our image. In fact, as our lobbying grew more successful, our image suffered.”

There definitely is an inverse relationship between lobbying and pharma’s public image. Last week, Arizona Sen. John McCain, for example, said U.S. pharmaceutical companies have gone from revered to “reviled” because of their opposition to prescription drug imports and lobbying during the establishment of the Medicare drug benefit in 2003. (See “McCain critical of U.S. pharmaceutical industry“; American City Business Journals/Phoenix (free registration) (8/25))

Moreover, the image-improving tactics being employed — curbs on consumer ads, expanding access to low-cost drugs for the poor, and open disclosure for clinical trial data — may not go far enough or even as far as promised by the industry.

Take the promise to provide more clinical trial information. A June 2005 NYT Editorial expressed dismay at a government report that Merck, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer have effectively reneged on their pledges to list clinical trials of their drugs in a federal database. The editorial also said that this “deplorable intransigence” also extends to voluntary industry databases, where Merck and Pfizer are most prominent withholders of data.

While the industry has made promises to reform DTC advertising and deliver more education, it is still too early to determine if the Pharma marketing aircraft carrier has made a turn yet (see “Pfizer DTC Pledge: ED is Litmus Test“). Some critics have also said that the new DTC guidelines do not call for substantial changes. Scott Hemsley, a financial reporter at the Wall Street Journal contends that the “Industry’s Voluntary Principles May Not Be Bold Enough To Restore Consumers’ Faith” (see “Drug Makers Seek To Transform Advertising“; 8/29/2005).

Pharma’s program to provide low-cost drugs for the poor is a good PR move designed to deflect criticism of high drug prices. Much of the flak against high drug prices, however, has come from the elderly, fixed income segment of the population. These people have political clout, especially with Republicans like Frist and McCain. Pharma is currently shifting — through promotion and education — these people away from patient assistance programs to the Medicare Rx benefit, which is a public, not private, assistance program and a windfall to the drug industry. After the elderly are signed up there will be few people left with any political clout to sign up for pharma’s drug assistance programs, which will then be marginalized.