Capitalism the cure for cancer?

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Boris Johnson told Telegraph readers yesterday that we need capital to cure cancer. And implied that to get the benefit, we have to accept tax avoidance, inflated executive remuneration and such like. After all, he says, American drug companies are so much more dynamic, and we should emulate them.

Of course there’s another way to tell this story. There are different problems to worry about too. We do have big British drug companies – Glaxo Smith Kline and Astra Zeneca are in the global top 7. But anyone who has discovered a new treatment may well consider selling it to an American company. Why?

The US economy is by far the largest in the world. On top of that, Americans spend about twice as much of that large economy on health care. So there’s a huge amount of money to be made there. Along the way, a good many Americans lack decent health care, and many more go bankrupt through ill health. Hardly the best of examples.

Big drug companies spend far more on marketing than research. In the US they advertise heavily to consumers, pushing up demand for expensive drugs that may be little if any better than cheaper alternatives. As you might expect, they are more interested in profits than health.

The reality, which may not be welcome to Boris Johnson, is that many new treatments are first devised in universities and NHS teaching hospitals. Trials of new drugs are done with NHS patients. The biggest threat to this process is not attacks on corporate greed, it is the short sighted insistence on commercialising British universities.

While one can see the logic of the players in health systems, it doesn’t follow that the whole system is in the interests of society. In fact, it looks pretty clear that the rent seeking behaviour of the drug companies works against the general good. Businesses large and small have a role, but if we want to maximise wellbeing for all, they need strong regulation. And to be criticised over their excesses.

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