When it comes to product safety, it has been a rough decade for pharmaceutical and medical device companies. The drug company in hot water is Johnson & Johnson, called out onto the congressional carpet for messing up the manufacturing of thousands of bottles of the infant versions of Motrin, Tylenol and other medicines.
The FDA says some bottles contained the wrong doses, and others had particulate matter within the drugs. While it is unlikely patients were harmed, the same can’t be said for J&J’s once vaunted reputation.
The Motrin mess is just the latest in a long series of scandals that has severely tarnished the reputation of drug makers. Drug makers and medical device companies like to think they are at the forefront of medical innovation. Sometimes this leads to breakthroughs like Gleevec for leukemia and Zocor for cholesterol. But more often than people like to admit, efforts to find cures go badly wrong.
The sequencing of the genome in 2000 was supposed to lead to a unprecedented cornucopia of new medicines. Nothing of the sort has happened; in fact, the number of new drugs hasn’t gone up at all. In the meantime, aging blockbusters have sometimes run into trouble.
The big blow came in 2004, when Merck ( MRK – news – people ) recalled Vioxx after it was found to increase the rate of heart attacks. It had previously hyped the drug as safer painkiller, as it avoided older drugs’ tendency to cause ulcers. Merck downplayed the heart issues for years until the evidence became undeniable.
The company managed to limit its legal liability to less than $5 billion, but fallout from the from the Vioxx scandal continues to affect the whole industry. It has led to increased scrutiny over possible heart side effects of many other drugs, including GlaxoSmithkline’s diabetes pill Avandia.
Since then there have been a number of worrisome safety problems hitting major drugs and devices. Antidepressants have been linked to possible higher rates of suicidal thoughts in children and teens. Some heart defibrillators turned out to have faulty leads that might not work when you need them. Sales of the Bayer ( BAY – news – people ) surgery drug Trasylol have been suspended after independent researchers linked it to increased risk of death.
Part of the problem is that the drug business is more dependent on blockbusters than any other business but Hollywood. It runs through hundreds of potential medicines and spend more than $1 billion to get a single hit. The rewards can be great: Pfizer‘s ( PFE – news – people ) Lipitor, for high cholesterol, generated more in annual sales last year than all the tickets sold at every movie theater in America–$11 billion for Liptitor vs. $10.3 billion for movies.