As I See It: Pharma's public image

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Paul D. Thacker
Paul D. Thacker

In recent years, pharma executives have begun a bit of hand wringing over the public perception that their industry is corrupt.

Two years ago, Deirdre Connelly, President, North America Pharmaceuticals, GlaxoSmithKline, told a crowd: “I believe that, in some ways our industry lost its way, and failed to fully appreciate the evolving expectations of our stakeholders.”

Former Pfizer president John LaMattina has even written a new book asking if the industry can “restore its broken image.”

Let's all agree on one thing. It will take a lot of work. The image of pharma as corrupt is not a ­problem of perception. It's one of fact.

In early December, German television ran a documentary about a secret program in the ­former East Germany, which invited Western drug companies to ­experiment on its citizens. In exchange, companies paid the cash strapped nation millions.

Creating a program in the nation that witnessed the Nuremberg trials, whose behavior led to founding of basic ethics in medical research—is there anything more ironic? More outright disgusting?

It's easy to predict the response of corporate attorneys: “This program took place years in the past, before recent changes, and does not reflect current practices.”

Sure. But we cannot forget history. Not because people cannot change. Not because Pharma is not trying to become more ethical. But because the best predictors of future behavior are past actions.

Thacker, a former Congressional investigator, is a consultant to nonprofits and foundations and a Lab Fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University
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