The whores of politics rake it in

You need to have lived in Washington quite a time before you learn to spot them. They always seem powerful and wealthy, exuding bonhomie - and even, sometimes, rare and coveted commodities such as seats in boxes at Washington Redskins' games. But they are also mysterious about exactly what they do. "In government" is usually the closest clue they will give. Yet they insinuate themselves like slimy toads everywhere, and only after years of practice do you finally suss out their true role. They will never acknowledge it or allow themselves to be so described, but they are lobbyists - the true whores of politics, plying their trade in the world capital of power where hugely wealthy companies pay them big bucks.

You never really know, either, exactly what they're up to, as they ingratiatingly press backs and dispense largesse. But last week, a telling example of just how much power these people wield in the land of the free - and how their covert operations end up affecting the everyday lives of millions - came home to me.

I took a prescription for just ten Claritin antihistamine tablets to my local Safeway pharmacist and was charged more than $20. Paying $2 per pill is by no means unusual here; at the same pharmacy I had paid $209.49 for 200 tablets of warfarin (a blood-thinner and, yes, fatal to rats) that has been around more than 60 years and which costs about the same to make as aspirin.

What do those lobbyists and exorbitant prices for drugs have in common? The answer: everything. The patent for Claritin is held by one company, the giant Schering-Plough corporation; last year Claritin sales alone totalled $1.9 billion here, about the same as S-P's profits. This year, Americans will spend $121 billion on prescribed drugs, a jump of 18 per cent since 1998. The pharmaceutical industry is now by far the most profitable one in the US, with profits of more than two-and-a-half times that of any major competitor.

Because health financing here is so diffuse - 40 million Americans have no health insurance and the rest have insurance ranging from all-encompassing to practically useless - drug companies take consumers for everything they have. In Europe, national health services are bulk-buyers of drugs such as warfarin and can haggle with manufacturers over prices, but in the US there is no such check or balance: they will charge what they can get away with.

In Cornwall, last August, I bought seven tablets of Clarityn (other than its spelling identical to Claritin and made by S-P's European division) for £4.25 - not cheap by British standards, but half what Americans pay.

More and more insurance companies are refusing to pay for prescriptions because of sky-rocketing costs. A recent survey showed that nearly a fifth of the population did not take at least one prescription from their doctor in the past year simply because they could not afford it.

The result is a thriving cross-border trade in medicines bought in Canada or Mexico (one man was caught near the Mexican border in Texas this month with 47,000 Valium tablets hidden in his spare tyre) and, illegally, via the Internet. Overall, according to one analysis, Italians pay 51 per cent of what Americans pay for the same drugs, the French 57, the British 64 and the Swedish 69 per cent.

The politicians have seen to it that US pharmaceutical companies may reimport only their own products, too; importing a generic European version of warfarin, say, is illegal.

S-P, though, is due to lose its patent on Claritin in 2002 - and US (let alone European) manufacturers say they can make the drug, loratidine, for 50 cents a dose instead of the $2 or more that S-P now charges.

So what does S-P do? The company pours millions into Washington - sometimes direct to politicians but more usually via a lobbyist - to campaign to take the patent-ownership of drugs "out of politics", in the words of a spokesman. This means that whereas S-P gave 95 per cent of its political donations to Republicans in 1996, it has now widened the net by giving 40 per cent to Democrats.

S-P's lobbying cost $4.2 million last year and will be much more for 1999. But overt, big-time lobbyists such as Peter Knight (a fund-raiser for Al Gore), Linda Daschle (wife of the current Senate Democrat leader, Thomas Daschle) and Howard Baker (the former Senate Republican leader) hand out Baltimore Oriels' tickets like confetti as gifts from those nice folk at S-P. The company even loaned a Gulfstream corporate jet for at least five junkets to Senator Orrin Hatch, a Republican so dotty he still thinks he is a serious presidential contender next year.

Having spent at least $11 million on lobbying since 1996, S-P's efforts are now paying off. The Democratic senator Robert Torricelli is sponsoring a bill that would enable S-P to retain its hold on Claritin, and thus its monumental profits from it, for a further three years. A fellow Democrat dismisses it as the "Claritin Monopoly Extension Act". But Torricelli's state just happens to be New Jersey, the home of S-P and the state whose politicians have gained most from its donations. S-P, as a result, now sees the prospect of more billions beyond 2002.

And the movers and shakers of Washington, what with their free tickets and Gulfstream jets, are also happy; it's just millions of ordinary Americans unable to afford decent antihistamine tablets who suffer from the arcane workings of those ever-present lobbyists. No wonder the lobbyists are so reluctant to admit what it is they actually do.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 29 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An explosion of puffery