In a blatant attempt to highjack debate on domestic issues now that he has congressional approval for waging war against Iraq, President Bush has embarked on a desperate campaign to maintain control of the House of Representatives and capture control of the Senate in the Nov. 5 elections.

A key element in that campaign is an effort to portray the White House and GOP candidates as champions of senior citizens in their battle with drug manufacturers over the high price of prescription drugs.

In a Rose Garden ceremony staged barely two weeks before election, Bush proposed new rules that will make it harder for pharmaceutical companies to block introduction of low-cost generics. Bush also proposed new rules that, he claimed, will curb frivolous – better put, “fraudulent” – drug company patents used to extend their monopoly beyond their present 20-year limit.

However, a recent survey of brand-name drugs whose patents are close to expiring shows that none of the more than 20 “block buster” drugs whose patents are set to expire between now and 2006 would be affected by these changes. Bush also claims his proposal will save consumers some $3 billion annually.

Reliable estimates say much tougher legislation passed by the Senate would save consumers at least $6 billion. A bill co-sponsored by Charles Schumer of New York and John McCain of Arizona, would allow manufacturers of generic drugs faster access to the market by eliminating frivolous patents and would give generic companies greater certainty that they won’t be sued after coming to market. The bill would also tighten a loophole that allows brand-name companies to pay generic competitors not to bring their drugs to market promptly.

Pharmaceutical companies, the most profitable of any domestic industry, are among the major contributors to political campaigns with their generosity overwhelming benefiting Republicans.

In the 2001 election cycle, pharmaceutical companies had donated some $4.5 million to political candidates with $1.4 million given to Democrats and $3.1 million to Republicans.

And then there’s the hidden political contributions given to outfits like the United Seniors Association, an industry front group that is running TV ads in 20 congressional districts where the outcome may very well determine the post-election makeup of Congress.

The ads, tailored for each district, praise Republican members of the House of Representatives for supporting legislation to provide prescription drugs benefits to seniors. Starring a chipper Art Linkletter, one version of the ads proclaims, “American seniors deserve the best of health,” adding that the Congress member in question “is fighting for real prescription drug coverage,” and tells viewers to “urge him to keep standing up for America’s seniors.”

What the ads don’t say is that the candidate voted for legislation similar to that proposed by Bush in his Rose Garden extravaganza or that the legislation closely tracked the industry’s position on how drug benefits should be provided. Nor do they say the legislation was rammed through after the House leadership refused to let a Democratic proposal come to the floor.

Ron Pollack executive director of Families USA said the pharmaceutical lobby has “take deceptive advertising to new highs,” while Public Citizen called the ads “sham issue ads designed to help industry allies who face tough re-election campaigns.”

The University of Wisconsin’s Advertising Project said a conservative estimate of the cost of the ads is $9 million, while other consultants said $13 million represents a more accurate figure.

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Fred Gaboury
Fred Gaboury

Fred Gaboury was a member of the Editorial Board of the print edition of  People’s Weekly World/Nuestro Mundo and wrote frequently on economic, labor and political issues. Gaboury died in 2004. Here is a small selection of Fred’s significant writings: Eight days in May Birmingham and the struggle for civil rights; Remembering the Rev. James Orange; Memphis 1968: We remember; June 19, 1953: The murder of the Rosenbergs; World Bank and International Monetary Fund strangle economies of Third World countries