Still, Tauzin said, the industry needs to do more to accept the social responsibility of not only inventing new cures but making sure those cures get into the hands of those who need it.
“We don’t make ice cream” or other products that are a luxury, he said.
For years, critics on and off Capitol Hill have criticized the industry for its drug prices while it poured millions of dollars into aggressive lobbying and public-relations campaigns. In the last Congress, some Republicans joined Democrats in reprimanding the industry.
Tauzin promises some “pretty big changes” at PhRMA.
“It’s not about buying respect. It’s about earning it,” he said.
When asked recently how the industry can stop a bad story from running in the press, Tauzin responded, “Stop doing bad things.”
Since taking over at PhRMA in December, Tauzin has committed to publish more data about clinical trials and helped launch a nationwide effort to assist Americans who lack prescription-drug coverage.
This week, Tauzin promised to change the tone of the industry’s controversial direct-to-consumer advertisements and to highlight the need to address the nation’s uninsured problem.
He also indicated that PhRMA will work more cooperatively with the media, saying that the group would shake its reputation for “no-comments.” Tauzin said PhRMA is committed to the truth — “the good, the bad and the ugly.”
The new direction of PhRMA will take at least two to three years before it yields results, he said.
When Tauzin was considering the PhRMA post, several drug lobbyists questioned whether the Energy and Commerce Committee chairman would be able to handle complaints and criticisms from the group’s board of directors. The board, the lobbyists said at the time, is the driving force of PhRMA.
But when PhRMA Chairman Miles White approached Tauzin, he was looking for dual leadership.
According to Tauzin, White told him, “I’m not asking you to just lead PhRMA. I’m asking you to lead the board.”
Tauzin said he has encountered some resistance, but not much, to his new vision for PhRMA: “I have the support I need to make these changes.”
After a fierce battle with a bleeding ulcer and cancer, Tauzin said, he feels there is a reason why he ended up at PhRMA. He said being a cancer patient can be humbling, especially as a member of Congress.
“We think we’re invincible,” he said.
Tauzin appears to have come to grips with his mortality and the prospects that cancer could return at any time: “I don’t know how much time I have left. I get scanned every three months. …”
In 2003 and 2004, there was widespread speculation that Tauzin would take the top job at the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Tauzin said that in 2004, then-MPAA chief Jack Valenti was looking for an answer.
“When you have cancer,” Tauzin explained, “everything stops. … I had nearly bled to death. It was a tough moment for me. I couldn’t tell Jack I had cancer.”
Tauzin freely acknowledges that he misses being in Congress and the Energy and Commerce Committee he spearheaded. But PhRMA has plenty on its plate to keep him busy.
The industry faces a major challenge as Congress again prepares to consider legislation to permit prescription-drug imports.
PhRMA has highlighted safety concerns about imports, but Tauzin suggested a shift in emphasis by tying the practice of importing drugs into the United States to organized crime and terrorism.
“We continue to assert that these safety concerns are real,” he said, describing a “threat of not just criminal elements but al Qaeda and terrorist elements.”
Terrorists could use counterfeit drugs to spread infectious diseases, he said. Tauzin said he understands why members of Congress would vote for a reimportation bill for political reasons but indicated there is a big difference in voting for a bill in either chamber and “making it the law of the land.”
“I would hate to have on my conscience that I voted to make [importation] the law of the land and then woke up one day when al Qaeda used a bunch of fake Viagra tablets to get anthrax into this country,” he remarked. “That’s a real possibility.”
Public opinion will shift away from importation, Tauzin predicted, as more information surfaces about such threats. Worries about the safety will prompt some congressional supporters of importation to change their positions, he said.
Instead of focusing on importation, “I’d be working to make sure the drug regime in America is safer,” Tauzin said.
Nonetheless, PhRMA remains skeptical about legislation that aims to heighten drug safety. A bill to create a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) office center to monitor the safety of drugs on the market was introduced last week by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.).
“We support the notion of an independent safety review panel within FDA,” said Tauzin. “What we don’t think you need to do is reinvent the wheel,” as the FDA already has adequate authorities.
The withdrawal of Merck’s popular painkiller Vioxx last September triggered renewed congressional interest in drug safety. The company pulled Vioxx after data suggested the drug increased the risk of heart attacks and strokes in some patients.
Vioxx underscored the strength of the safety monitoring system, Tauzin said, because, “in a sense, the process worked,” although “it didn’t work as well as it should work.”
The industry needs to anticipate potential problems and be more open about early signs of trouble, but there are limits to how much can be understood about any drug before it reaches the market, Tauzin said.
“Every medicine has side effects. Americans have to come to understand that, and they don’t,” Tauzin said. “We all have a job to do as patients … to learn about and to understand the drugs we take.”