Headliner: Michael Weinstein of AIDS Healthcare Foundation
Michael Weinstein, president and CEO of LA-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, comes off as a brusque, combative, no-nonsense New York type—traits well-suited to a point man in the global fight against HIV/AIDS, and one who has, over two decades, built a sprawling AIDS service and advocacy organization. But woe be unto the pharma that stokes his ire.
“The reality is that the industry owes AIDS activists,” he quips, noting the role of advocates in speeding up approvals. “They’ve profited very handsomely from our advocacy.”
Under his leadership, AHF has lashed the drug
industry over access and affordability issues while emerging as a fierce critic of pharmaceutical promotion—particularly DTC advertising.
Recently, AHF has bird-dogged Viagra marketing, accusing Pfizer of slyly promoting it to younger men as a “party drug.” “This drug isn’t approved for performance anxiety, and that’s how it’s being marketed,” says Weinstein. “What does ‘occasional ED’ mean? They’re skirting the edges of legality, essentially promoting an off-label use.”
Such ads, he says, are particularly galling because Viagra is used in combination with crystal meth, fueling HIV transmission. AHF’s crusade against Viagra—including print ads, a lawsuit (dismissed), banning Pfizer reps from its clinics and fulminating against an OTC switch—garnered tons of coverage. AHF is also running ads ripping Bristol-Myers Squibb for Reyataz and Videx prices in Mexico and parodying GlaxoSmithKline ads. It’s not just DTC that irks Weinstein—perks for docs, he argues, help drive up costs largely borne by taxpayers. “My feeling is that marketing has essentially eclipsed research,” he says. “Those who can, invent. Those who can’t, market.”
AHF’s evolution parallels the revolution in AIDS treatments, and its rocky relationship with the industry embodies the fractious symbiosis between advocates and pharmas. It began in 1987 as the AIDS Hospice Foundation, started by a handful of California activists who had just cut their teeth defeating a ballot initiative that sought the quarantining of AIDS sufferers. Average life expectancy of an AIDS patient was 13 months. Treatments for opportunistic infections were improving, and AZT was just coming online, but the prognosis was grim.
“People were dying in the streets,” says Weinstein. “At a minimum, we wanted to provide death with dignity.” Co-founder Chris Brownlie succumbed to AIDS-related ailments in 1989.
In 1990, with treatments improving and patients living longer, AHF morphed into a service and advocacy org, dropping “Hospice” for “Healthcare,” opening clinics and offering a managed care plan. In 1996, as cocktail therapies emerged and deaths plummeted, AHF expanded nationally. In 2000, the group went global, starting with a project in Durban, South Africa.
AHF now boasts a budget of $168 million and a staff of 800 serving 61,000 patients in 18 countries. AHF docs dispense meds through AHF pharmacies. AHF’s “HIV medics” offer testing and disease management.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that such a good works empire-builder studied architecture and knew a thing or two about business to begin with, having run an offshoot of the family chocolate firm before becoming a full-time activist. He has a sweet tooth for film, favoring disaster movies, and loves traveling—fortunate, since he logs around 150,000 miles a year visiting AHF’s far-flung projects.
Weinstein says he tries to work with firms rather than against them. Before AHF went after Pfizer, he says, Weinstein went to them with a proposal for an educational program on crystal meth and AIDS, but was rebuffed. (Pfizer’s med ed grants division denies receiving any such application.)
“Industry is not our enemy,” says Weinstein. “We want and need to see the development of new drugs, and we wouldn’t without a partnership with industry.”
CEO and president, AIDS Healthcare Foundation
AIDS Healthcare Foundation, CEO and president
Stop the AIDS Quarantine Committee, coordinator
Gold Medal Chocolates,