Pharmaceutical companies have taken a pummeling in the public eye, but that hasn’t shaken Lou Cobo’s impression of the industry.

Cobo, who lives in the Sussex County town of Andover, said his mother recently was diagnosed with breast cancer. After she was prescribed medication, her doctor was joined by a pharmaceutical sales representative to discuss potential side effects, Cobo said.

“I thought that was very conscientious,” he said.

Cobo isn’t alone. A new Star- Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers poll showed a significant improvement in the perception of drug companies among New Jersey residents during the past year.

The survey of 865 adults, conducted Sept. 6-9, asked if prescription drug companies were doing a good job or a bad job serving consumers.

The percentage of people who said drug companies were doing a good job increased 5 points, to 39 percent, but the more dramatic result was a 10 percentage-point drop in those who said pharmaceutical companies were doing a bad job.

The swing in perceptions is similar to a 17-point jump cited in a national poll in April by Harris Interactive, which posed a question identical to that in The Star-Ledger survey.

The New Jersey results are perhaps more surprising because they come on the heels of a widely publicized verdict against Merck, in which a Texas jury last month held the company liable for $253.4 million in the wrongful death of a man who took the painkiller Vioxx.

Merck, Johnson & Johnson, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Pfizer and other big prescription drug companies are among the largest employers in the state.

How well New Jersey residents are disposed toward pharmaceutical companies is particularly important to Merck because almost half of the 5,000 Vioxx-related lawsuits it faces have been filed here in its home state. The first New Jersey trial began last week in Atlantic City.

The reason for the improved perceptions, despite the spate of negative publicity, is unclear.

“All I can speculate is that in the long term, there could be beneficial effects from all those pharmaceutical ads,” said Tim Vercellotti, assistant director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling, which conducted the poll. “They all make pharmaceutical companies look great.”

Most recently, drug companies’ contributions to the Hurricane Katrina effort, both in cash and donated medications and supplies, have put the industry in a good light.

Beyond that, over the past year, there has been a recognition on the part of pharmaceutical companies that the industry has to do a better job of telling its side of the story, said Bob Franks, president of the HealthCare Institute of New Jersey, a trade group that represents drugmakers and medical technology companies in the state.

To that end, the state’s drug industry has launched initiatives such as Rx4NJ, an outreach program that directs low-income patients to private and government- sponsored assistance plans that offer free or discounted medication.

“For too long, the pharmaceutical industry presumed that the American people had sufficient information to make informed judgments about the role of medicine in our modern society,” Franks said. “The reality, however, was that people were not given sufficient information, either about the value of medicine or the effort undertaken by companies to make sure patients had access to those lifesaving products, regardless of their income.”

Still, drug companies have a long way to go to restore the reputation they once enjoyed. In 1997, 79 percent of those participating in Harris Interactive’s national poll said they thought pharmaceutical companies were doing a good job. That figure has declined steadily until this year’s rebound to 56 percent.

And in New Jersey, the percentage of people who said drug companies are doing a bad job serving consumers is still larger than those who say otherwise, 44 percent to 39 percent, according to the Star- Ledger/Eagleton poll. The margin of error in the poll was 3.3 percentage points.

For some of those people, prescription drug costs are a big reason for their disaffection.

One of the polltakers, Carol Lee Gross of Wood-Ridge, said she and her husband were insured through the retiree health plan from his former employer, a communications company. But she recalled seeing an older woman, apparently uninsured, digging through her purse at the local pharmacy to scrape up money for her medication.

“One little bottle was $165, or some outrageous amount,” she said. “They’re selling these medications in Canada for so much cheaper than you can get here. If they can sell it in Canada for half or less, why not here?”

In the Vioxx case, Merck may benefit not so much from how Garden State residents view pharmaceutical companies specifically, but corporations in general.

“I think Merck does stand a better shake here, not for the view of pharmaceutical companies per se,” said John Brenner, a productliability attorney with McCarter & English in Newark who has defended Pfizer and other pharmaceutical companies but not Merck.

“Jurors in New Jersey seem less angry or disaffected or resentful than jurors in other places. As a generalization, you can be a corporate defendant and get a better shake here. They can listen to your arguments.”

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