SAN NARCISO, Calif. (Bennington Vale Evening Transcript) -- The recent EpiPen scandal recounts a familiar and reprehensible tale of greed: a pharmaceutical company purchases a dated drug, boosts the price and, in the process, dismissively impedes patient access to medication. Over the past year, Martin Shkreli has served as the poster boy for this sort of unapologetic avarice. Now, exit Shkreli and enter Mylan, which hiked the price of its auto-injection devices by 400 percent. Mylan blamed the price increase on the costs of the pens -- the medicinal value of the drug inside amounting to only a handful of coins. Dubious as the claim may seem, it’s working. And other enterprises want to capitalize on this lucrative trend -- particularly Bic, which manufactures one of the most popular ballpoint pen brands. Echoing Mylan’s concerns about the soaring costs of materials and resources, Bic announced Monday that its writing instruments will now cost customers more than $50 a pack.
From Ball-Point Pens to EpiPens: Cheap Substances, Expensive Delivery Mechanisms“Bic’s current business dynamics mirror the shifts taking place at Mylan,” said Ernestine Borgia, a consumer affairs representative for the company. “Sure, ink costs next to nothing, but the plastic devices that deliver the substance have become expensive. We’re facing the same challenges as these struggling drug companies. Our mission is to continue producing pens that school children and professionals need. But we can’t sustain the high quality people have come to associate with Bic in the presence of crushing overhead.”
Consumer protection agencies and business watchdogs blasted Bic’s decision, criticizing it as opportunistic, baseless and unjustified. Julian Schutzer, head of San Narciso County’s Bureau of Consumer Affairs, lashed out angrily when he learned of Bic’s latest move: “You can’t compare a goddamn ink pen to epinephrine or Daraprim or insulin. Who the hell even uses Bic pens outside of school children and receptionists?”
Borgia defended the company. “Ball-point pens are just as life-saving and essential to survival as EpiPens,” she said. “Doctors use them to write down a person’s vitals in emergencies. Nurses use them to update and maintain patients’ charts. Bear Grylls can show you how to transform a pen into a weapon, a syringe, a fishing hook and even a saliva-fueled bidet.”
She then invoked the role of pens in the running of the country.
“What about the federal administration of our great nation?” she asked, her voice pitchy with passion. “The government doesn’t understand computers, let’s be honest. Ever tried to apply for health insurance through the ACA’s website? Our leaders and legislators perpetuate a bureaucracy that thrives because of its reliance on paper records -- written in pen. So you could make the case that our very infrastructure and national defense persist because of Bic’s products.”
Schutzer mocked Borgia’s hyperbolic attempts to “elevate Bic to an unrealistic standard of self-worth, which even toothpicks and tampons surpass. There’s no way a hollow plastic tube costs more than a few pennies to make.”
Borgia disagreed: “Mr. Schutzer clearly has no concept of modern business impediments. China is growing into a more powerful economy than ours. Their children can work in Apple sweatshops now. They don’t need to slum it in Bic’s. Then, of course, there’s the downfall of Saipan -- the crown jewel of American imperialism and entrepreneurialism.”
The story of Saipan, the largest of the Northern Mariana Islands, is well-documented and controversial. Investigative reporters have repeatedly exposed it as a hub of forced labor, overseen by U.S. corporate interests with the complicity of influential political figures.
“For decades,” Borgia explained, “we enjoyed the unparalleled productivity that blossomed from the sweaty rape dungeons of Saipan. Millions of underage workers toiled tirelessly for 16 hours a day, filling those skinny ink reservoirs and stuffing them into pens. As indentured sex slaves, they’d pleasure the facility’s foremen and visiting dignitaries during breaks. These kids could do it all. But because of the mandatory abortion policy, no children were sired. The soil of our dreams eroded without a crop of fresh youth to take the place of aging workers.”
Price Gouging in Pharmaceuticals: Bic’s Case PrecedentIn September 2015, Martin Shkreli, former head of Turing Pharmaceuticals, stunned the nation when he raised the price of Daraprim by more than 5,000 percent. Shkreli instantly became the subject of an ensuing media circus, intense legal scrutiny, public outcry and backlash from health advocates.
The life-saving drug is used to treat toxoplasmosis, a condition caused by a parasite that affects nearly 25 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 12. It’s particularly deadly to unborn children and people with autoimmune diseases such as AIDS.
Shkreli, bizarrely, responded to the nation’s condemnation with hubris. Unfazed by the negative press and political outrage, Shkreli took to social media to laugh it all off. “I think it’s ironic that I named Turing Pharmaceuticals after a gay scientist and now I’m about to kill a bunch of people with AIDS,” he tweeted a day after the news broke, before Twitter removed the post.
On Facebook, before that update also disappeared, Shkreli ranted: “Gay people suck. And now they do so at their own peril. LMFAO. FTW.”
Despite the demonization of Shkreli, who drove the price of Daraprim to $750 a pill from $13.50, the infamy and rebuke did nothing to ease the situation for patients in need of the medication. In fact, Shkreli’s actions inspired a new breed of villain, most recently in the guise of Mylan CEO Heather Bresch, who approved a 400-percent surge in the cost of EpiPens. Experts argue that the auto-injection devices contain only $1 worth of epinephrine. So how did Mylan justify $600 for a pack of two injectors? Executives cited the cost of producing the pens -- the delivery device, not the drug.
Bic Says History Is Written by the Winners, with Ink PensBic is seeking similar gains. And it’s experimented with this tactic before. In 1974, Bic announced that it would raise the prices of ballpoint pens for the first time since 1961, when production of the writing devices began. A pack of pens went from 19 cents to a quarter. That jump represented a 31.6 percent increase. Today, at 99 cents a pack, consumers have witnessed a 296 percent increase. And this week, based on Borgia’s statements, ballpoint pens will become the Daraprim of the office world with a 5,000 percent increase.
The success behind Shkreli and Bresch’s profitable, if unethical, maneuvers stems from the unavailability of generic alternatives. Daraprim and EpiPens enjoy a lack of competition. Patients have little choice but to pay for these drugs. Unfortunately, many users are now rationing their supplies or going without. Bic, on the other hand, does not hold such an unassailable position in its market. Countless other writing utensils exist, Julian Schutzer noted, “including frigging pencils and chalk.”
Borgia, however, believes that Bic’s rivals will follow suit presently.
“Just as Bic pioneered the ballpoint pen, so will it blaze the trail for competitors who will soon be forced to raise their prices,” she said. “Bic is the generic alternative. Nobody can afford Cross pens or even Pilots or Meads. If consumers aren’t willing to pay for our pens, which are absolutely necessary to their livelihoods, then I suppose they can start signing their contracts in blood. And with the cost of medicine these days, let’s hope they don’t get an infection.”
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