Thoughtleader: Peter Pitts, DrugWonks.com

Get Up, Stand Up
Jan 01, 2007
By Pharmaceutical Executive


Peter Pitts
Peter Pitts writes to a mostly silent readership. He's the chief voice of http://DrugWonks.com/, a blog hosted by the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, a nonprofit focused on challenging drug policy and the industry's critics. Although more than 150,000 people log on each month to read Pitts' often-provocative entries, most execs are too afraid of the spotlight to respond. Pitts considers these readers part of the "silent majority"—the employees in the pharma industry and FDA who, when attacked, won't fight back.

Taking on the critics has become somewhat of a personal mission for Pitts, who was formerly FDA's associate commissioner for external relations, and is now senior vice president for global health affairs at the PR firm Manning, Selvage & Lee. He's bent on getting industry to stand up and speak its mind—and he leads by example. His blog takes on politicians, journalists, medical journals, or, he says, "anybody out there with a score to settle."

Here, Pitts urges pharma to continuously plug its positions and get politics out of science, and offers some perspective on important regulatory reforms facing FDA.

Pharm Exec: Pharma has been burned so many times by the media. Why do you expect them to speak up and get different results?

Peter Pitts: When did it happen that FDA moved from protector of the public health to villain? It's only because people who choose to paint the industry and paint the FDA in those colors had the field all to themselves. Those people are more than happy to speak and write and almost put graffiti on the subways to get their messages out.

On the other side, the pharma industry is in a pickle because they've kept quiet. They've worked behind the scenes. They've lobbied. But if you don't say anything, don't expect people to understand your argument. It's too late to step forward when a congressional committee is loaded, the public is against you, and the media's looking for blood—that's not a recipe for success.

What's the most damaging argument out there now?

There are lots of politicians, Senator Grassley and Representative Waxman to name just two, who often say FDA is in the pharmaceutical industry's pocket. But anybody that has ever worked with FDA realizes not only is that not right, it's comically wrong. Although the agency has to be both colleague and regulator, when an FDA person walks into a pharma company's lobby, that building shakes.

I'll tell you a true story. After I left FDA, I paid a social call to a friend of mine at Pfizer. I'd been to Pfizer when I was at the FDA, so my name was in the databank. I walk into the building and I say, "I'm here to see so-and-so." They type in my name and they ask me to wait. Within two seconds, five people come running into the lobby wanting to know if they can help me. They must have tapped a little FDA emergency button. So it's just a small example, but it does show how the industry lives in fear of the FDA.

But these sorts of arguments are out there because FDA and the pharmaceutical industry haven't done anything to counteract them. The FDA doesn't have the money for any type of outreach budget, and they say they're busy—but that's not an excuse. And when it comes to the pharmaceutical industry, they need to learn to go beyond just creating a public affairs initiative—they need to actually live it.