Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Odds Are Not Stacked Enough in Our Favour, Say Big Pharma

The 'Counterfeit Act' signed by the Kenyan government last year is being challenged as unconstitutional, violating the right to health. This act was not really necessary because it was already an offense to make and distribute fake goods and there are already officials whose job it is to enforce existing laws.

In fact, the act seems to have been cobbled together and rushed through parliament at the behest of big industry, especially big pharma. The last thing they would want is competition, except where the odds are well stacked in their favour. So they whinged to the government (a process called lobbying in some countries) about how things were so unfair and the government kindly came up with a piece of legislation that fails to distinguish between fake goods and generic goods.

As a result, generic versions of drugs destined for Kenya have been held up in various countries on the grounds that they may not be legally distributed in Kenya. This is great for big pharma, they never wanted generic versions of drugs to be produced unless they themselves produced them, at inflated prices. But they were forced to reduce their prices when producers won the right to produce generics and big pharma have been fighting them ever since.

GlaxoSmithKline has come up with the expedient of reducing a few well known products, such as some of their antibiotics, to try to undercut generic versions. However, they don't seem to understand the concept of undercutting: their prices need to be lower. They have reduced their prices, sure, but they are still far more expensive than generic versions. What they are offering are hardly loss leaders, rather some kind of token gesture, to which journalists give the expected publicity and praise. And it's still not even certain if the reductions will be passed on to consumers.

The result of Kenya's self-serving piece of legislation is that there is widespread confusion about pharmaceutical products. People really have no way of knowing what is fake and what is not. The fact that something has a well known manufacturer's name on it does not guarantee that it is not fake. But if it is genuine, you are still robbed of the extra cost that going for the branded product involves.

People are just not able to afford many of the branded products. Slight reductions here and there, or even substantial reductions, miss this point. What is never so clear is what people have to sacrifice if they do go for the expensive branded product. But that's of little interest to organisations like GlaxoSmithKline or to the journalists who flock to report on whatever titillating rubbish is being reported on by all other journalists.

I'm glad to hear this despicable act is being challenged and hope those opposing it succeed. Because other countries, such as Uganda, are considering similar acts, no doubt in response to lobbyists for big pharma and other industry interests.


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