Why Can't We All Cooperate Together?

Calls for cooperation among natural competitors and other adversaries seem to be breaking out across the nation, all presumably for the greater good of the Citizen Consumer. It's about putting information, and the power that results from having it, in the hands of the people, of course. There will be skeptics.

New York Times columnist David Brooks, for example, gets behind the efforts of some senators to address our national budget crisis by taking a hard look at entitlements that are not, at present, part of the discussion. Cutting/reforming/slowing the spiraling growth -- pick your gerund -- of these programs is critical to our future, Brooks feels, but is not a viable debate unless enough elected officials are "willing to risk political ire to save the republic." And because there is strength in numbers, they need a populist movement to form behind them.

The spin that Brooks offers that makes all of this palatable is that until we tackle spending on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and interest on the debt, the programs that are our best investments in the future will be eliminated or slashed to the bone.



Writing on the paper's op-ed page the day before, a Big Pharma executive proposed that "Congress pass legislation that would allow drug companies to cooperate with one another, and with physician and patient organizations, to develop joint ad campaigns that are specific to certain diseases and conditions but not to any particular drug."

Ian D. Spatz, who is a former vp at Merck and now advises a law firm that has pharmaceutical companies as clients, acknowledges that direct-to-consumer adverting of prescription drugs has unleashed a sales and marketing genie that has had mixed blessings for both the industry and consumers. He feels his solution would allow companies to trim their individual marketing budgets while leaving enough advertising dollars on the table to feed the media beast.

Most critical, consumers would presumably get unvarnished information about their diseases and conditions and not be bombarded by brand-name enticements every time they turn on "Meet the Press."

Meanwhile, Melissa Musiker, director of nutrition and health at the Grocery Manufacturers association, took a look at the 2010 Dietary Guidelines announced by the federal government last month and saw an opportunity for the food industry to make incremental strides in areas such as packaging and reduced salt.

"It is our collective responsibility to help consumers take small steps toward building an overall healthier diet," Musiker writes in Food Navigator-USA. "This means that the food industry continues to provide consumers with a variety of products to meet their health and wellness goals."

Musiker also calls on the government and public health groups to empower consumers with education and strategies for success. She doesn't say so, but the government has. Going forward, one of the key strategies is "Eat Less."

Meanwhile a consortium of for-profit and not-for-profit companies and organizations has banded together to create a program called text4babies that sends free weekly SMS messages to women who are pregnant or whose babies are less than a year old.

Run by the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition (HMHB), the partnership includes government agencies, corporations, academic institutions, professional associations and non-profit organizations. Johnson & Johnson and Grey Healthcare Group are among the founding partners.

"We're used to hearing about public initiatives that get mired in politics or entangled in bureaucracy, but we rarely hear about programs that exceed expectations," writes David Bornstein in the Times' online "Opinionator" section. This public-private partnership has reached 135,000 women in less than a year, in both English and Spanish, and has its sights on one million users by the end of next year.

"We focus on what's most important for women to know week by week," HMHB CEO Judy Meehan tells Bornstein. "The baby is such a motivator for moms. Science tells us that a real behavior change leading to healthy choices can be made at this unique time."

Perhaps this program can pave the way for similar cooperative ventures, although I suspect that the noncontroversial nature of HMHB's mission has something to do with it success. A truce among the brand stewards at Viagra, Cialis and Levitra, as Mr. Spatz would have it, may be a bit more difficult to achieve.

There is, of course, a school of thought that the industry creates whole categories of diseases in much the same way that the food and beverage industry has created whole categories of products -- bottled water anyone? -- that people seemed to have lived blissfully without for millions of years. In that vein, I bring to your attention a story that appeared online in Time a few days ago.

"Orgasm, Inc.: New Documentary Exposes Big Pharma's Search for a Female Viagra," the headline reads. Jennifer Block writes that filmmaker Liz Canner "lays bare the fact that pharmaceutical companies are not only trying to sell a drug -- they're trying to sell a disorder" called Female Sexual Dysfunction.

It's great to see a spirit of cooperation emerging out there. I also think that if it is to succeed, it's equally important to retain some skepticism about it.

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