Ethics and Pharmaceutical Marketing

2006-2008 - Principal Investigator Carl Elliott, MD, PhD was awarded grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Library of Medicine (NLM) Grant for Scholarly Workings in Biomedicine and Health; and from the University of Minnesota Graduate School for research on ethics and pharmaceutical marketing.

Over the past three decades, American patients have been transformed into health care consumers. Politicians and policymakers disagree about whether this transformation has been healthy or pathological. Relatively unnoticed, however, have been the hidden by-products of this transformation. The union of medicine with consumer capitalism has produced a remarkable variety of for-profit activities that look like a branch of medical practice or research, but which operate out of the medical mainstream. Some of these activities are related to pharmaceutical marketing (drug representatives, medical ghostwriters, pharmaceutical public relations specialists), but others operate in different realms of the market sphere, such as genetic ancestry specialists, infertility entrepreneurs, professional guinea pigs, and traders in human body parts.

Elliott will write a book on the implications of the union between medicine and consumer capitalism and will include not just pharmaceutical marketing, but also the commodification of other activities related to medicine, such as the trade in human organs, the rise of for-profit genetic ancestry-tracing companies, and the payment of healthy volunteers. Can a practice be commodified without the risk of exploiting the poor? How are explicitly for-profit activities changing the shape and direction of traditional medical practice? How can we distinguish between satisfying medical needs and satisfying consumer desires? What, if anything, is troubling about a society aimed primarily at producing satisfied consumers?

Elliott has produced a number of publications on his research (listed below), many of which will be incorporated into a final book manuscript and were presented at a number of conferences, including the annual meeting of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities in Washington, DC and the 8th Annual Conference on Biomedicine, Ethics and Society in Sandhamn, Sweden.


Elliott C. Guinea Pigs of the World, Unite! Forthcoming, The Atlantic Monthly.

Moffatt B, Elliott C. Ghost Marketing: Pharmaceutical Companies and Ghostwritten Journal Articles. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 2007; 50:1, pp. 18-31

De Vries R, Elliott C. Why Disclosure? Journal of General Internal Medicine 2006; 21:9, 2006, pp. 1003.

Lemmens T, Elliott C. Commercial IRBs Have a Fundamental Conflict of Interest, PLoS Medicine 2006, 3:6 (July), at:

Elliott C. The Drug Pushers, The Atlantic Monthly, April 2006, pp. 82-93.

Elliott C. Let’s Test It on Them; review of The Body Hunters by Sonia Shah and The Great Starvation Experiment by Todd Tucker, The American Prospect, in press.