McCain's Attacks Shift Drug-Industry Giving to Democrat Obama
By Justin Blum
Aug. 19 (Bloomberg) -- When Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, wanted to team up with a Republican on legislation making it easier to bring low-cost generic drugs to market, he found an eager partner: Arizona Senator John McCain.
The pair introduced the measure in 2000, drawing opposition from makers of brand-name drugs. Since then, McCain has crossed swords with the pharmaceutical industry by supporting measures to let consumers import cheaper medicines from Canada and by opposing creation of Medicare's drug benefit for the elderly.
The result is a mutual antipathy that is playing out in the presidential campaign. McCain, 71, the presumptive Republican nominee, boasts in a television ad that he has ``taken on'' drugmakers. Executives and employees of the companies are reciprocating, donating three times as much to McCain's Democratic rival, Illinois Senator Barack Obama, 47.
``The betting would be that if McCain were in the White House the drug industry would not have the receptive ear that they have had from'' President George W. Bush, said Uwe Reinhardt, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey.
The drug industry usually has favored Republicans for president, including Bush, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a group in Washington that researches campaign contributions. This time, Obama has collected $450,094 to McCain's $132,575.
The difference is that the Republican candidate is a critic of the drugmakers instead of an ally as in the past, leaving the industry without a champion because Obama also has taken positions at odds with the pharmaceutical companies.
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a Washington-based trade group representing drugmakers, won't comment on McCain, said spokesman Jeff Trewhitt.
McCain emphasizes his fights with the drug industry as evidence he is willing to confront powerful interests.
``Only McCain has taken on big tobacco, drug companies, fought corruption in both parties,'' says the narrator in a campaign commercial that began running this month.
During a Republican debate in January in New Hampshire, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney assailed McCain for his criticism of the drug industry.
`Big Bad Guys'
``Don't turn the pharmaceutical companies into the big bad guys,'' Romney said.
McCain responded, ``Well, they are.''
In the Senate, McCain supported allowing consumers to import drugs from countries where they cost less, such as Canada, legislation drugmakers opposed. He also opposed the measure creating Medicare's drug benefit, calling it too costly.
Schumer's staff approached McCain on the generic-drug legislation because he had a reputation for working with Democrats and didn't have a ``position staked out on pharmaceutical issues,'' said Debra Barrett, who was then a legislative assistant to Schumer.
``It didn't take an extraordinarily long amount of conversation before he said, `Yeah, I want to do something on this,''' said Barrett, now vice president of government affairs in Washington for generic-drug maker Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. of Petah Tikva, Israel.
A narrower version of the measure, allowing quicker access to generics in certain circumstances, eventually passed.
`Lower Drug Prices'
McCain supports faster introduction of generics ``because that's an important way to lower drug prices for patients,'' said Taylor Griffin, a campaign spokesman.
Such positions have had an impact. The political action committee for GlaxoSmithKline Plc gave to Bush four years ago and hasn't contributed to either candidate this time. The committee donated to Bush ``due to the striking differences between the candidates' proposed policies'' in that election, said Sarah Alspach, a spokeswoman for London-based Glaxo, the U.K.'s biggest drugmaker.
Indeed, Obama's campaign said the Democrat also would be tough on drugmakers.
Obama ``has a strong record of fighting to lower drug costs,'' said Nick Shapiro, a spokesman. In addition to letting Americans buy drugs abroad, Obama wants to give the federal government authority to negotiate with drugmakers to hold down the prices they charge Medicare, Shapiro said.
Obama has been running a commercial portraying McCain as an industry tool, saying the Republican supports ``billions in tax breaks for oil and drug companies.'' McCain's campaign said that is a misleading reference to his plan to reduce corporate taxes overall.
Still, not everyone involved with the drug industry views McCain as a foe. Doug Badger, a lobbyist with the Nickles Group in Washington, which represents pharmaceutical companies, said a McCain presidency would be better for drugmakers than an Obama administration.
``I don't perceive McCain as someone with an ax to grind,'' said Badger, a former Bush health-policy adviser. ``I see McCain as a man who strikes an independent course.''
For now, the drug industry is backing Obama because of a perception he is the likely winner and because of McCain's criticism, said Peter Rost, who was a vice president of marketing at New York-based Pfizer Inc. until he was fired in 2005. Rost accused the company of wrongly accepting government reimbursement for unapproved uses of a medicine. The company denied wrongdoing.
``McCain has been more outspoken against the drug industry than Obama has,'' said Rost, who sued Pfizer and wrote a book criticizing the company. ``They're very concerned about him.''
To contact the reporter on this story: Justin Blum in Washington at email@example.com.