Monday, April 07, 2008

Big Pharma Gets Serious About Cutting the Fat

Infrastructure? Who’s talking about infrastructure?

We mean obesity. According to our affiliated publication “The Pink Sheet,” the pharmaceutical industry’s role in treating diseases tied to obesity was a recurring theme during the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America’s 2008 annual meeting.

Exhibit A: Jerry Mathers, formerly “The Beaver” on Leave it Beaver (pictured above). Mathers spoke to PhRMA about how he put on a bit of weight when he opened a catering business and ultimately developed type 2 diabetes.

Which inspired this immortal line from PhRMA CEO Billy Tauzin:

“If you really want to see the health care cost driver in America, try doing what ‘The Beaver’ did. Try looking past your belly button. If you can’t see past your belly button, you’ve seen the larger part of our problem.”

According to “The Pink Sheet,” there was plenty more talk about chronic illnesses stemming from obesity. National Institutes of Health Director Elias Zerhouni discussed. (You can read about the annual meeting here; a subscription is required.)

One of the few speakers who did not directly discuss obesity was Merck CEO Richard Clark, the new chairman of PhRMA, whose address focused on rebuilding trust in the industry. (A theme, alas, that is all too common at PhRMA annual meetings, but one we think is particularly important to Merck.)

Clark is also particularly interested in the health care burden of obesity, given the big—and now, perhaps, troubled—bet Merck has made on the potential anti-obesity agent taranabant. If you haven’t been following it closely, the Merck drug seemed to show pretty good efficacy at the lowest studied dose—but also a high rate of psychiatric adverse events at higher doses. (UPDATE: We orginially suggested that Clark helped shape the PhRMA meeting agenda. Merck tells us that the agenda is in fact put together by the outgoing association chairman--Amgen CEO Kevin Sharer, in this case.)

The agenda was also a little thin (sorry) on big name political figures—another all-too-common trend for PhRMA during election years. The biggest name was Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who knows a thing or two about weight loss himself. But Huckabee’s appearance also underscores the tough months ahead for industry, since none of the three remaining Presidential contenders can be called a fan of Big Pharma.

No one knows when or if the pharmaceutical industry will have a meaningful impact on the obesity epidemic, but we will venture one prediction: given the commercial and political pressures on industry, PhRMA companies will be leaner by this time next year.

And if industry wants to turn that picture around, this is not the time for navel gazing.

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