A Politician's New Cause

Billy Tauzin, the colorful former congressman, comes from a tradition of Bibles and blackjack. "I always said that if they put slot machines in the church, I'd never see my mother again," the Louisiana native quipped recently. Last year he learned something else also ran in his family: cancer. His mother survived three bouts of the disease. Now Tauzin is a cancer survivor too, and he's not just proselytizing about the drug that saved him but the whole pharmaceutical industry.

In January, the 61-year-old Republican, who served 13 terms as a U.S. representative, became the head of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the trade association for drug companies. "I don't know if PhRMA has ever had a president that's been a patient," Tauzin told reporters last week. But that perspective may be a much-needed shot in the arm for an industry that Tauzin says needs to "recapture the trust of the American public."

In a Kaiser Family Foundation study earlier this year, half of those surveyed said they had an unfavorable impression of drug makers. That's largely because prescription drugs are not only increasingly expensive but patients worry some--like the painkiller Vioxx, which was pulled from shelves last fall--are possibly unsafe. With the zeal of a convert, Tauzin is taking to the road to address the public's concerns.

One of his first stops: "The Montel Williams Show." The smooth-talking Southerner regaled the show's audience late last month with stories of how he almost bled to death in New York during a visit last December. "Lost half my blood at a hotel here in New York," he told them. The bleeding ulcer turned out to be cancer of the duodenum, the first section of the small intestine right below the stomach. Tauzin had surgery and chemo but there was still a tumor up against his spine.

Then he took Avastin, a new drug from Genentech. It had never been used on someone who'd already gone through surgery. It could kill the tumor, but doctors feared it could also kill him. "Pretend I'm your wife. Would you recommend this to me?" Tauzin asked his oncologist. The doctor, looked down and said, "No." Tauzin, ever the showman, replied: "Wait a minute. I forgot to ask you something. Do you like your wife?" Tauzin decided he was a gambling man and tried it. As of March he's gotten a clean bill of health. "I wouldn't be here without Avastin," he said last week.

Tauzin is one of the lucky ones and he knows it. A lot of Americans can't afford the very drugs that could save their lives. "There's resentment" toward the drug companies, Tauzin says. To address that, PhRMA has started a hotline to hook uninsured and underinsured patients up with 1,200 different types of drugs for free. Patients have to have a doctor's prescription and meet certain income requirements in order to qualify. It's called the Partnership for Prescription Assistance (1-888-4PPANOW).

After Tauzin appeared with Montel Willliams, the hotline began getting around 24,000 calls a day. Since the hotline and Web site (www.pparx.org) were set up in April, nearly 300,000 have gotten assistance, according to PhRMA. Drug companies say they expect to shell out more than $4 billion worth of medicine this year for the program. But as M. Asif Ismail, who investigates the drug industry for the Center for Public Integrity, points out, that's a tiny fraction of the $550 billion drug companies made worldwide last year. Ismail calls the hotline "a public relations stunt."

PhRMA argues that it costs an average $1 billion to create each new drug and that 7 out of 10 drugs see no return on that investment. But Tauzin admits that it's hard to explain to consumers why drugs cost so much, especially when the pills we take today look the same as those his mother took 50 years ago. "You don't see the amazing amount of technology that goes into it," he says. "That's a story we've got to tell."

While Tauzin is a believer in medicine's healing power, he also knows something about its risks. Back when he was walking the corridors of the Capitol he developed painful fasciitis--otherwise known as a heel spur. He started popping ibuprofen. He now thinks that overuse may have led to the ulcer that led to cancer. "I didn't understand the medicine I was taking," Tauzin says.

In his new job he is pushing the companies to be more forthcoming about the potential downsides of their drugs in advertisements. "You can't just mumble the risks at the end," Tauzin says. This summer, PhRMA's members plan to adopt a voluntary code of principles for these so-called "direct to consumer" ads--a move some see as an effort to preempt Congress from regulating them.

If anyone knows how to wheel and deal with Congress it's Tauzin. He still has a lot of "buddies" on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which regulates pharmaceutical companies and which he used to chair. Critics say he was on PhRMA's side even before he became their chief lobbyist, and they worry that his appointment may stymie government efforts to set price and safety controls. Tauzin argues that it's in the drug companies' interest to put safety first--not just because it's the right thing to do but because it affects their bottom line--and that price controls could kill innovation.

Drugmakers spend more in lobbying than any other industry--some $750 million since 1998, according to Ismail. It's been widely reported that at least a million of that is now going to pay Tauzin's salary (though PhRMA would not confirm this). But Tauzin says he didn't take the job for the money, noting that he had other more lucrative offers. After his ordeal with cancer, he says, "This was clearly the right choice." He adds that he's been living on "Lagniappe" time. For those who don't speak Cajun, that's an unexpected gift. "I'm trying to use it well," Tauzin says.