A new Chinese box office hit has sparked public debate on the high cost of cancer drugs and prompted calls for government action.
“Dying to Survive,” which was released on July 5, follows the true story of Lu Yong, a Chinese businessman with leukemia who smuggles cancer drugs over the border from India, for himself and other patients. He is ultimately caught and sentenced to five years in prison.
The film has proved to be a surprise hit among moviegoers in China, raking in more than $335m since its release on July 5.
It has prove especially popular online, where it has stirred discussion on the accessibility of cancer drugs and treatments. A page dedicated to the movie on Weibo, a Twitter-like social media platform used in China, has so far been viewed more than 1.5 billion times.
It is estimated up to 95% people in China have some kind of health insurance. However, many drugs – including several associated with cancer – are not covered under standard health plans.
On Wednesday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang called on the government to do more to help cancer patients, according to state media reports.
Although he didn’t reference the movie by name, Li stressed the importance of making cancer drugs readily accessible to ordinary Chinese. “If there is any cancer patient in a family, they will spend everything on it,” Li said.
“Even the whole extended family will help. Cancer has become the number one killer that threatens people’s health and life. Maximum effort has to be exerted to relieve the whole family’s burden for the patients and families,” added Li.
Tariffs lifted, prices slashed
The movie’s release has coincided with a number of developments intended to help reduce the costs of drugs in China.
In the weeks after the film’s release, US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. decided to reduce drug prices in China, some by as much as 10.2%.
The film also arrived only days after China lifted tariffs on imported cancer drugs as part of the Asia Pacific Trade Agreement, effective July 1.
“We have taken the initiative to expand imports, reduced the import tariffs by a large margin for cars, parts and components and daily necessities, and adopted zero tariff for anti-cancer drugs,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying last Monday.
The other member nations of the Agreement – India, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Laos – agreed to cut tariffs on over 10,300 items.
Premier Li emphasized that to ensure medical costs reflect new zero tariffs, the government must also take measures such as slashing commissions and fees associated with drug prices.
Hua also referenced “Dying to Survive,” calling it “a very popular film” when asked about India-manufactured cancer drugs.
“China and India are witnessing a growth in pharmaceutical trade, and the two sides are in sound communication on opening the Chinese market to drugs from India and conducting dialogue and cooperation between the two sides’ pharmaceutical industries,” Hua said.
“We believe that stronger pharmaceutical trade cooperation will contribute to the well-being of the people in our two countries.”