Pharmaceuticals – the Consumer View

Based on the remarks made by Anwar Fazal, President of IOCU, at a Press Conference on “SMON” (sub-acute myelo-optic neuropathy), a disease associated with the use of clioquinol. The problem of SMON and clioquinol has been regarded as one of the greatest drug tragedies and scandals of recent times. The Press Conference was held on 26 April 1980, in Geneva, Switzerland.

There was a time when the consumer point of view was of little interest or influence – the consumer was passive and he was captive. Times have changed and the consumer movement is now asserting itself vigourously as a countervailing power to ensure justice in the marketplace.

This Press Conference is a manifestation of this new power and strength of the consumer movement. Today the International Organization of Consumers Unions (IOCU) founded in 1960 has a network of 111 organisations in 46 countries in every continent.

Five years ago here in Geneva IOCU presented a report on a widely used drug – a drug then already banned in Japan but available in 51 countries, in 39 of them without prescription; 15 of the samples came without any instructional leaflets whatsoever; dosage varied from three to 28 days; many samples listed not a single contra-indication and none of them had all. What was even more appalling was that the same company could provide nearly satisfactory information in one country but not in another.

One of the principal companies manufacturing that drug, clioquinol, and engaging in the unconscionable practice of different standards was CIBA-GEIGY – the leading manufacturer of the drug.

Today’s press conference also relates to that drug and its manifestations and that company.

Today’s press conference also brings together in Switzerland for the first time the victims of the drug and representatives of that company.

But this press conference is not a trial of Ciba-Geigy or even of the drug clioquinol. The trials have been held in Japan and the verdicts well-known.

If anything is on trial it is the social responsibility and corporate accountability of a complex and powerful industry and profession whose fundamental purpose is to relieve suffering, to heal and to save lives but whose record is marred by crass commercialism of sometimes horrific dimensions.

There is some value in reminding ourselves of the 1,000 million people that are denied basic medical service, and that many millions die each year because of an unjust hostile environment and that commercial predators can be quick to take advantage.

We have to deal with many complex issues among them:

  • The explosion of drugs (one-third to one-half of which is probably undesirable and unnecessary and sold often by a combination of myths and lies.
  • The power and practices of multinational enterprises.
  • The high dependency and cost of pharmaceuticals in developing countries (up to 60 percent of the health budget).
  • The incompetence and “trained incapacity” in the health professions.
  • The impotence of many governments to deal with the primary issues relating to health.

The anarchy and dishonesty in sections of the “Pharmaceutical – Health Complex” is symptomatic of the kind of “cash register ethics” that is responsible for the infant formula scandal and the tobacco epidemic in the Third World.


That is why it is important and vital for us to work together to secure the basic rights of all of us as consumers – our rights to basic goods and services, our right to adequate information, our right to safety, our right to redress and compensation, our right to consumer education, to representation and to a healthy environment.

This meeting today is both a sign of our strength and the long and arduous tasks ahead for us.

If this press conference stimulates a greater sensitivity to the issues surrounding the pharmaceutical industry, if it leads to more decency among the “corporate cardinals,” if we can move away from the unenlightened self-interest that taints such a noble purpose, if it leads to the World Health Organization asserting the unique power given to it in Articles 21 and 22 and its Charter to promulgate drugs regulations that will bind all nations, this conference would have been successful and we would have taken another step toward more rational and equitable social policies and a new international order in the pharmaceutical industry.

We, as consumers will continue to be vigilant, to strengthen our network of cooperation, to expose the unfair and dishonest. Towards this end, IOCU is moving toward the establishment of a systematic and efficient International Hazardous Product Warning System – a kind of Consumer Interpol.

Consumer vigilance, an alert press,  brave and responsible medical profession,  new morality in the corporate world, affirmative action by governments and an expanded role by the World Health Organization – all that will be necessary if we are to achieve really useful things for real people in the health field.

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