There is unquestioned social good in having pharmaceutical companies discover beneficial drugs and use their marketing prowess to ease pain and save lives. Such is the case with medications aimed at helping people quit smoking and prevent cervical cancer. But two questions must be asked: What is the real motive and what is the real cost?
In the case Merck, the cost to vaccinate young women against the cancer-causing human papillomavirus is about $360; cheap enough for an American family to avoid the devastating cost of cancer but too steep for the underdeveloped world.
Does it really need to cost that much, or is the price merely Merck's way of recovering profits lost in the Vioxx disaster? And is the price so high because it pays for the army of lobbyists now at work in at least 20 states trying to make HPV vaccinations required by law?
The (subscription-only) Wall Street Journal, which yesterday examined the Merck campaign, today goes after a similar mixing of good message with questionable motive. It turns out that smokers are being told by both the federal government and the American Cancer Society that nicotine replacement therapy is preferable to quitting cold turkey.
That is a conclusion not necessarily well founded in research but is quite well funded by GlaxoSmithKline, which pays scientists who amazingly churn out research in support of the company's products, Nicorette gum and Wellbutrin pills.
The easy solutions to cervical cancer and tobacco addiction are "don't have promiscuous sex" and "don't smoke." But until people behave perfectly, there is a huge price to pay – in dollars, in personal misery and in scientific integrity.