Book Review: The dope pedlars

“Planned Obsolescence”—the interesting sounding couplet that covers a multitude of sins, something which has hit the post war capitalist world like a bombshell. Briefly, it means deliberately producing poor quality goods with a severely limited lifespan, so that the market is kept going. For the market is the all important god to be worshipped at all cost, never mind who gets harmed in the process.


Nevertheless, you might perhaps have thought that there were some fields into which planned obsolescence would find it difficult to push its ugly snout —like medicine for example? Well, you would have been wrong, very wrong, and Brian Inglis in Drugs, Doctors and Disease (Deutsch 25s.) would tell you just why. This book is an excellently written survey of the pharmaceutical industry, or rather of that industry’s dirty record in the promotion and sale of drugs over the past few years and after you have read it, it will not be so difficult to understand just why such tragedies as the Thalidomide affair happened. Indeed, the wonder is that there have not been many others.


Mr. Inglis points out that it has been the policy of some leading drug manufacturers to push new products onto the market at an alarmingly rapid rate, in many cases well before any adequate tests had been completed—even on animals. In fact, such a profitable market has this become that often a new drug is superseded by another before the bewildered doctor has a chance to carry out any kind of worthwhile clinical tests. The result of all this has been generally to ignore the possibilities of side effects and for the drug companies to get their project before they are discovered. And by then, anyway, they will have put a new drug on the market.


The cynical disregard for human welfare which this involves, the incessant pressure exerted on doctors by the drug salesmen (often posing as patients), the lying claims in the publicity blurbs, all these and more are dealt with by the author in over 200 pages of searching criticism, liberally sprinkled with the most damaging quotes from the industry’s apologists. For instance, John T. Connor, president of the U.S. Company Merck:—


“As in other industries, our driving force is profits. But unlike other industries, the single most effective way to earn those profits is by making existing products obsolete, including our own”.


Mr. Inglis draws attention also to another harmful trend in that the general practitioner is less and less able to use his own judgement when prescribing treatment and has to rely more and more on what the drug houses choose to tell him about their products. That they mislead and often lie outright is quite clear, but the doctor has no immediate way of knowing this and by the lime the lies have been nailed and the drug withdrawn, some unfortunate has suffered side effects, some of them serious. Thalidomide (trade name “Distaval”) was one of the more glaring and tragic examples, and was strongly suspected of causing peripheral neuritis long before its effects on unborn children were fully appreciated. Yet only a few days before the scandal broke, the manufacturers were still claiming its complete safety in use.


That all medical treatment must run an element of risk, we do not deny—there is no such thing as the perfect remedy after all. But having said that, it is still true to claim that the hazards have been multiplied many times as a direct result of the profit motive. Mr. Inglis makes this point very forcefully, but he is not a Socialist and he does not draw the obvious conclusion from his researches. Instead he plays around with the idea of nationalisation of the pharmaceutical industry—or parts of it despite the black record of nationalisation in other spheres.