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Politicians aren't the only masters of political deception

By Trevor Bothwell
web posted September 6, 2004

As matters of public policy go, we've never had the ability to be so informed politically as we are in this era of instantaneous email and Internet information. Regrettably, however, neither has it been so easy to be so misinformed simultaneously.

Anyone who works a desk job with access to email likely receives dozens of email messages every day, many of which consist of simple jokes or news updates, or anything in between. And let's face it, we're probably all plenty happy to read anything so long as it gives us one more reason to put off doing our work.

Okay, maybe that's just me, but that's beside the point. What is perfectly relevant is that we're often inundated with email stories that appear to be true but are in fact false. This can be troubling, considering how easy it is to believe rumors that sound compelling, especially given our tendency to believe things that play to our own biases or appeal to our emotions.

Tom Daschle saying the Pledge with his left hand: It was a fake
It was a fake

Remember the email that went around a couple years ago that showed Sen. Tom Daschle saying the Pledge with his left hand, or the one claiming that Target Corporation is French-owned and only donates to gay and lesbian causes? Both were untrue. But how many people saw these and carelessly proceeded to propagate the rumors?

Encouraging certain politically persuasive viewpoints through the use of email and Internet communication is nothing new, and the majority likely is legitimate. But laughing at obvious jokes is one thing; shaping political opinions based on fabrications masquerading as truth is quite another.

Even The Federalist Patriot, a popular and reputable political e-newsletter, fell victim to propagating a myth in its August 23 Monday Brief regarding the citation of a religious verse supposedly made by John Kerry.

Then there is this email I received the other day that attempts to portray pharmaceutical companies and drugstores as corporate whores greedily overcharging poor, defenseless consumers. In part, it states:

Did you ever wonder how much it costs a drug company for the active ingredient in prescription medications? Some people think it must cost a lot, since many drugs sell for more than $2.00 per tablet.

… In our independent investigation of how much profit drug companies really make, we obtained the actual price of active ingredients used in some of the most popular drugs sold in America. The chart below speaks for itself.

Celebrex 100 mg
Consumer price (100 tablets): $130.27
Cost of general active ingredients: $0.60
Percent markup: 21,712%…

…Xanax 1 mg
Consumer price (100 tablets) : $136.79
Cost of general active ingredients: $0.024
Percent markup: 569,958%…

… Since the cost of prescription drugs is so outrageous, I thought everyone I knew [sic] should know about this. Please read the following and pass it on. It pays to shop around…

… I had to use the drug, Compazine, which helps prevent nausea in chemo patients. I used the generic equivalent, which cost $54.99 for 60 pills at CVS. I checked the price at Costco, and I could have bought 100 pills for $19.89. For 145 of my pain pills, I paid $72.57. I could have got [sic] 150 at Costco for $28.08.

Since this email encourages everyone on the list to engage in widest dissemination, it's unfortunate that it's filled with glaring misconceptions and distortions, especially during an election year. But that's clearly the point.

The most apparent fallacy of this particular message is that it's attributed to one Sharon L. Davis, Budget Analyst, U.S. Department of Commerce. When I called Ms. Davis's office, they officially denied her connection to this email message. Of course, they could have been lying; but it's more likely that whoever sent this email libeled her to give the impression that her job title lent credibility to the claims.

However, as the list of drugs clearly shows, we are somehow only considering each drug's name, consumer price, and cost of active ingredient. A "percent markup" oddly follows, which conflates the consumer price and the cost of the active ingredient, as if these are the only two factors that determine the price of a drug. This "argument" fails to take into consideration that many costs factor into the production of any drug, namely research and development, marketing, advertisement, scientists' salaries, etc. The actual manufacturing costs -- where active ingredients come in -- are probably the cheapest of all.

Once total production costs are considered and accumulated, it pays to consider how many drugs are approved for consumption, after years and years of research. Thomas Sowell once noted that out of 5,000 compounds Pfizer produced, about a half-dozen actually made it to clinical testing. I might note that the cost of applying for and gaining FDA approval is not cheap, either.

Generic drugs are also manufactured more cheaply than name brand, for the simple reason that patents expire and companies that manufacture generic drugs then have access to the formulas invented by the original company. And when it comes to prices that pharmacies charge for drugs, every one of us has the right to engage in selective shopping. Put simply, if you don't like the price, don't buy the product. The main reason a company like Costco can sell cheaper products is because it buys in much higher volume than stores like CVS.

It is very persuasive and politically expedient to use misleading numbers and statistics to attempt to convince unsuspecting members of the public of the accuracy of one's claims. However, one of the most unfortunate realities we encounter is the public's overarching lack of economic understanding. Since these types of emails arouse emotion among uninformed readers, should it be surprising when we hear calls for price control legislation or reimportation of drugs from other countries like Canada?

Once one considers the many factors that go into marketing products -- in this case prescription drugs -- it is hard not to wonder how, in fact, the prices we are charged are actually so low. Supply and demand forces producers to provide consumers their products at the most competitive prices possible, if they value the luxury of remaining in business. In short, if we think prices and services are bad now, just wait to see what they'll be like once government has attempted to manage it all -- responsibilities that we seem to be emboldening it to assume by the day.

Ultimately, everyone has to be responsible for what they believe. Thankfully, there's one simple rule that can help us avoid making political decisions based on fabricated "evidence": Don't believe everything you read -- especially if the extent of your political knowledge is confined to anonymous email messages.

Trevor Bothwell is editor of The Right Report. He was very disappointed when he learned that the photo of Sen. Daschle saying the Pledge backward was a fake. Trevor can be contacted at bothwell@therightreport.com.

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