What Keeps the Media Up at Night?
Figure 1 shows the total number of articles involving the biopharmaceutical sector for 2009 versus previous years. Results
indicate that overall coverage of the industry was down 18 percent year-over-year, or a whopping 55 percent from its peak
in 2005. The drop is due in part to an emphasis by journalists on more general topics like healthcare reform.
Figure 1. Number of Articles by Year
Table 2 identifies the issues covered in the articles, the frequency of their coverage, and how the results compare to previous
years. For the first time, FDA and regulatory policy issues topped the list in attracting the most media attention, with drug
safety a close second. Taken together, FDA and drug safety reveal continuing media scrutiny of the drug-approval process,
with particular interest in the misuse or abuse of prescription drugs, adverse effects reporting, and lawsuits related to
malpractice and patient claims of injury. As expected, most articles were critical of the industry and/or a specific company
Table 1. Number of Articles by Newspaper and Section
High drug prices continued to be another major theme in the press, holding a third place rank on the list. Interestingly,
two related pricing issues—importation of drugs and differential tiered pricing —received very little attention, and in fact
dropped off the list completely. The last audit ranked differential pricing fifth, and in 2006 importation ranked sixth. These
shifts may reflect the impact of legislative priorities on the healthcare reform debate, as importation was off the table
from the start.
Table 2. Analysis of Ethical Issues
Healthcare reform was the emerging hot issue for the year. The audit separated healthcare reform articles into two segments:
those that specifically referred to the response of drugmakers to reform, and those that focused more generally on the healthcare
reform movement and debate over its provisions.
A common theme of these articles was the industry's "unexpected" support for healthcare reform, including PhRMA's plan to
spend tens of millions of dollars on an advertising blitz promoting the Obama administration's plan to extend healthcare coverage.
Another aspect of the debate that attracted strong interest was the commercial implications of expanded healthcare coverage
for Big Pharma, where the sentiment was that self-interest was prominent in driving the industry to support the administration's
The audit analysis also showed a renewed focus on coverage of marketing and sales practices in the industry. Attention seems
to ebb and flow: The topic drew strong interest in 2005 and 2006, ranking fifth and fourth respectively, before dropping to
ninth on the list in 2008, and then re-surging in 2009. This resurgence is due in part to an update to the 2002 PhRMA Guidelines,
a voluntary agreement among some 40 pharma companies to stop distributing notepads, pens, T-shirts, soap dispensers, and other
reminder items decorated with product logos to doctors and nurses.
Finally, two issues that emerged for the first time were flu vaccines and industry mergers/acquisitions and consolidation.
This is not surprising given concerns about swine flu and the buzz around Pfizer's acquisition of Wyeth.