Selling the disease before the cure

Marketplace Staff Apr 21, 2009

Selling the disease before the cure

Marketplace Staff Apr 21, 2009


Steve Chiotakis: This month, drugmaker Pfizer stocked shelves with its latest pill to treat “overactive bladder.” The company earns more than a billion dollars in that market. Other pharmaceutical companies have cornered other disorders. And as reporter Kerry Grens tells us, some critics say patients have the opportunity to waste plenty of money.

Kerry Grens: To be clear: no one disputes the reality of overactive bladder — or incontinence, as it’s often called.

Tamara Bavendam is a urologist and a medical director at Pfizer:

Ramara Bavendam1: People may go to the bathroom as often as 20 times a day. And sometimes if they’re not able to get to the bathroom in time, they can actually wet themselves, have an accident.

Bavendam says overactive bladder is underdiagnosed, undertreated, and that 1 in 6 people suffer from it. That’s when the eyebrows go up.

John Mack is a blogger and publisher of Pharma Marketing News:

John Mack: Is it as much of a problem for as many people as the industry seems to be claiming?

Critics say no: It’s a case of disease mongering — where companies, doctors, and the media exaggerate the extent of a condition. Like irritable bowel or restless leg syndrome.

Mack says he has evidence supporting the skeptics. In 2002, he attended a presentation by an executive from the drug company Pharmacia detailing their success in inventing overactive bladder.

Mack: It really made an impression on me, because it was the first time somebody actually said that they created a disease.

That company has since been bought by Pfizer, and its bladder-control drug continues to be the market’s best seller. Pfizer couldn’t confirm or deny the validity of the presentation.

Steve Permut is a medical professor at Temple University. He says pharmaceutical companies can’t just invent a disease.

Steve Permut: I think, you know, we know when there’s a disease. I don’t know of anything that I’ve prescribed that isn’t for an acknowledged medical condition.

But he does recognize the influence of advertising. Permut himself receives money from a pharmaceutical marketing group.

Permut: The pharmaceutical companies spend billions of dollars a year on both advertising directly to the public and to the profession, and they wouldn’t do it unless they thought they could influence sales.

Permut says for many patients with overactive bladder, the treatments can be very simple — avoid caffeine and don’t drink as much.

In Philadelphia, I’m Kerry Grens for Marketplace.

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