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Drug makers seek to blunt criticism of price hikes

In the ad campaign ‘Time Is Precious,” the Biotechnology Innovation Organization showcases the value of cutting-edge treatments.BIO

After months of taking a public beating for soaring prices, drug companies are ready to tell their side of the story.

Two big industry groups are launching advertising campaigns highlighting how their breakthroughs can improve or safe lives, they said Monday.

The ads, from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, known as PhRMA, and the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, or BIO, are designed for social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Primarily, they target lawmakers and policy makers rather than ordinary consumers.

While the groups say they prepared the videos to join the growing national debate over the prices of specialty medicines, the ads don’t specifically mention drug prices. Instead, they focus on the stories of patients and researchers and the role of life-extending therapies in giving people with terminal illnesses more time with their loved ones.


“Too often, these stories are missing in the public dialogue about the cost of medicines,” said Robert Zirkelbach, senior vice president at PhRMA, who estimated the group will spend more than $1 million this year on the ad campaign. “The impact these medicines have on the lives of patients needs to be front and center in this debate.”

Citing a new crop of drugs that cure the liver-ravaging hepatitis C virus and cancer therapies that put hard-to-treat tumors in remission, Zirkelbach said, “These medicines are doing things that would have been considered science fiction 10 or 15 years ago.”

Objections to the $1,000-a-pill price for the first new hepatitis C drug, Sovaldi, which won US approval in 2013, have morphed over the past two years into a broader outcry by consumers, insurers, and even some presidential candidates about the price tags for treatments that can cost tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars a year per patient.

The resentment has been fueled by high-profile cases of drug makers like Turing Pharmaceuticals of New York and Canada’s Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc. They acquired drugs already on the market and substantially boosted their prices. Turing’s former chief executive, Martin Shkreli, came to epitomize drug company greed when he bought a generic medicine to fight parasitic infections last year and raised its price to $750 from $13.59.


Drug makers “are nervous, and they should be nervous,” said John Rother, president of the National Coalition on Health Care, which represents 85 consumer groups, health care providers, and insurers. “But I’m skeptical these [ads] are going to make much difference.

“I think the public and lawmakers recognize that there’s important medicines coming to market, but that’s not the issue,” Rother said. “The public outrage over the price of drugs is a matter of personal finance. These drug companies are pricing drugs to maximize profits.”

BIO, formerly the Biotechnology Industry Organization, recently changed its name to reflect the innovative nature of its research. While PhRMA represents mostly large drug makers that market pills and tablets for a large number of patients, BIO’s membership includes scores of smaller and more entrepreneurial companies that make complex protein-based drugs and other medicines, often for rare genetic disorders.

The group’s video, called “Time Is Precious,” flashes a montage of families, couples, and parents with children as a narrator intones: “Another decade with a spouse, a few more years with your best friend, a rich full life rather than one cut short. How do we place value on these? Today’s breakthrough medicines are delivering more than stunning outcomes, more than cures. They are giving us hope.”


BIO senior vice president Ken Lisaius said the organization expects to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote its video. He said the group did not coordinate production of its ad with PhRMA, but the two lobbying and trade groups were aware that each planned to unveil a campaign Monday.

While the PhRMA ad will be shown on social media mostly in Washington, D.C., where the group is lobbying against efforts to regulate drug prices, BIO’s video will also appear in selected US markets and may eventually air on cable or broadcast television, Lisaius said. He did not say whether they will air in Massachusetts, a biopharma industry hub.

“Our goal is to help educate the public, media, and policy makers about the value our member’s products bring the greater health care universe,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Similarly, PhRMA’s videos spotlight the industry’s efforts to bring thousands of new treatments to market. One, called “We’re Fighting Back,” cites novel drugs to treat cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Both trade groups are among the top lobbying organizations in Washington, with PhRMA spending $18.4 million last year and BIO’s outlays totaling $8.4 million, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, an advocacy group.

BIO’s video flashes a montage of families, couples, and parents with children as a narrator intones: “Another decade with a spouse, a few more years with your best friend, a rich full life rather than one cut short. How do we place value on these?”BIO

Robert Weisman can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.