Misleading advertising from Pfizer

We were bemused by Pfizer’s recent advertising campaign splashed across London Underground’s Westminster Tube station. Pfizer has covered the station – prime advertising real estate for influencing MPs on their way to Parliament – with an advertisement about what it takes to bring a drug to market. We find some of its claims misleading and want to set the record straight.

The advertisements appear to be aimed at convincing the public and MPs passing through the station that the high prices pharmaceutical companies charge for medicines are justified. Among the claims are that it costs £1bn in research and development (R&D) to make a new medicine.

Let us be clear: it does not cost £1bn to make a medicine – even GlaxoSmithKline chief executive Andrew Witty has said that this “fact” is one of the industry’s great myths. So why is Pfizer not being honest with the public?

The fact is, Pfizer — like nearly all pharmaceutical companies — will not tell us how it arrived at that figure, nor what its contribution to the R&D of a drug is. Few people are aware that it is the taxpayers who foot a critical, and at times substantial, amount of the R&D bill through the funding and hard work that universities and government-funded laboratories do in actually discovering the compounds that are turned into blockbuster drugs. Taxpayers are then hit again with pharma’s exorbitantly priced medicines that governments and people the world over often cannot afford. Prime examples of this are the recent outcries over the lack of availability of new cancer and hepatitis C treatments on the NHS due to high prices.

The industry is making a large contribution, but it does not exist in a vacuum and it certainly cannot justify current pricing strategies that exclude more and more people from accessing medicines.

Katy Athersuch

Medical policy and innovation access adviser

Médecins Sans Frontières Access Campaign, Geneva



Berkeley Phillips, UK Medical Director, Pfizer Ltd, responds:

Our ‘I am science’ campaign celebrates the remarkable science that underpins the discovery and development of medicines and vaccines.

We are proud this campaign is helping raise awareness and spark much needed public debate about the important role scientific innovation and the pharmaceutical industry play in helping many of us live longer, healthier lives. We absolutely welcome an evidence-based debate on the critical issue of access to innovative medicines, which is why we have referenced industry-wide statistics throughout the campaign, including the average cost to research and develop a medicine.

Although molecules may be discovered in universities and government-funded laboratories, much of the cost associated with developing these into viable medicines that can be given to patients is covered by the pharmaceutical industry, which funds pre-clinical and clinical trials, as well as licensing. From penicillin and cancer treatments to mapping the genome, medical innovations have changed the future for us all.

Medicines and vaccines are among the most powerful tools we have to help cure, treat, and prevent illness and disability — something not only to celebrate, but which we must all support and protect.

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, March 2016, Vol 296, No 7887;296(2887):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2016.20200773

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