The Points Interview: Dominique Tobbell

Editor’s Note: We’re more than a quarter of the way to one hundred Points Interview features today!  We dry out from our recent spate of alcohol histories to pop a few pills with Dominique Tobbell, our twenty-sixth interview subject and author of Pills, Power, and Policy: The Struggle for Drug Reform in Cold War America and Its Consequences (California, 2012).

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

My book explains the complex relationships between drug companies, physicians, and academic researchers. During the 1960s and 1970s the American drug industry confronted a reform movement that sought to reduce prescription drug prices by securing legislation that would increase the government’s control over drug development, distribution, and therapeutic practice. This reform movement brought together congressional Democrats committed to protecting the economic interests of consumers and organizations dedicated to increasing Americans’ access to affordable health care. It also included state welfare agencies and hospital groups struggling to balance their budgets amidst rising costs, and a growing number of physicians who accused drug firms of spending far more on misleading and excessive marketing than on research, needlessly driving up the costs of prescription drugs. My book describes this reform effort and the historical emergence of a politically powerful pharmaceutical industry in opposition to it. In the decades following World War II, the industry developed extensive networks with academic researchers, medical schools, and government officials. These relationships underpinned innovation and growth in the U.S. pharmaceutical sector and formed the basis of the industry’s political support after the war. I argue that the shared interests among academic researchers and the drug industry and the industry’s responsiveness to the needs of the biomedical community led the drug industry, organized medicine, and leading academic physicians to join forces against reformers in the 1960s and 1970s. My book demonstrates the economic and intellectual influence of drug industry interests on research universities and medical schools in the second half of the twentieth century.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

Because of its focus on pharmaceutical politics, my book explores the dynamic process by which drug companies, physicians, patients, and regulators debated, contested, and defined the regulatory framework for prescription drugs in the U.S. after World War II. As drug and alcohol historians have shown, this regulatory framework has necessarily had a determinative role in defining the legal status of specific of drugs, at the same time that these same groups—drug companies, physicians, patients, and regulators—have been the central actors in demarcating, maintaining, and contesting the boundaries between licit and illicit drug use. My book, I hope, will thus provide drug and alcohol historians with valuable context for understanding the political and politicized history of drugs in American society in the second half of the 20th century.

Read more