Washington D.C. - Five national consumer organizations today charged Newsweek magazine with transgressing ethical bounds by working with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) in a way that promotes the drug lobby's public policy agenda. In a joint letter to Newsweek Chairman and Editor-in-Chief Richard M. Smith, the groups contended that, as a result of a "virtually unprecedented" special advertising relationship with the drug lobby, Newsweek allowed the drug lobby to use a supposedly independent media outlet "to promote its public policy agenda."
The consumer groups claimed that Newsweek crossed ethical boundaries by giving PhRMA exclusive advertising rights for the magazine's Special Edition entitled, "Health for Life," which resulted in an edition that included articles consistent with the drug lobby's political positions. The consumer groups also noted that Newsweek agreed to co-sponsor a health conference in Washington, D.C. with the drug lobby.
The five national consumer groups that raised questions about Newsweek's joint efforts with PhRMA are the Consumer Federation of America, Families USA, the National Consumers League, Public Citizen, and United Auto Workers. In their letter to Mr. Smith, the five groups asked Newsweek to answer specific questions concerning the relationship of PhRMA's exclusive advertising payments and the contents of the magazine's Special Edition and health conference.
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The groups pointed out that the drug lobby took full advantage of their new relationship with Newsweek by mailing 12 copies of the magazine's Special Edition to the offices of each member of Congress with a letter from PhRMA's President, Alan F. Holmer, encouraging policymakers to "...use it when making health care decisions."
In addition, Citizens for Better Medicare - a lobby founded and funded by PhRMA - used Newsweek's Special Edition as a direct mail lobbying piece by attaching a letter addressed to Newsweek readers. In this letter, Citizens for Better Medicare urged readers to, "Make sure your elected officials know you want access to the most innovative and effective medical tools available - most importantly, that you want coverage for the life-enhancing prescription medicines described in this issue."
The consumer groups noted that high and rapidly increasing drug prices are the subject of intense public criticism and Congressional scrutiny. Yet, according to the five groups' letter to Mr. Smith, Newsweek's Special Edition fails to contain "any discussion about increasingly unaffordable drug prices" or "any indication that generic drugs can save people money, and how drug companies' documented abuses of federal patent laws prevent such generic drugs from coming to market." Instead, many of the stories and all of the advertising in the Special Edition focus on the need for more health care research, which is consistent with the drug lobby's repeated justification for high drug prices.
The criticism of Newsweek's relationship with the drug lobby comes at a time when the drug industry's financial relationship with various publications and organizations is coming under more intensive scrutiny. Six prestigious health journals recently editorialized about the need to protect journalistic integrity from undue influence by the pharmaceutical industry. Similarly, the American Medical Association has initiated an ethical inquiry about physicians' ties to the industry.
"It is bad enough when the drug lobby spends tens of millions of dollars annually in political contributions and lobbying to defeat proposals aimed at making drugs affordable for America's consumers," said Ron Pollack, executive director of the health consumer organization Families USA. "It is even worse when their money buys an exclusive advertising deal with Newsweek that tacitly results in that magazine's support of the lobby's political agenda."
"It is a great disappointment that a magazine as highly regarded as Newsweek would breach public trust by accepting a sole advertiser and distributing this publication in the guise of balanced, responsible journalism," said Linda F. Golodner, President of the National Consumers League.
"Newsweek appears to have engaged in an unprecedented collaboration with the drug industry that furthered the industry's anti-consumer agenda with policy makers. It can only be viewed as stepping across an ethical boundary," said Frank Clemente, Director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch.
"Newsweek has tarnished its independence by allowing a powerful special interest with an axe to grind to buy up all of the ads in this issue," said Travis Plunkett, legislative director for the Consumer Federation of America. "Newsweek will lose the trust of its readers if it continues this unheard-of partnership with the drug industry."