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Martin Shkreli: A new icon of modern greed

Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli this month on CBS. (Screenshot via CBS News)

BBC News has suggested that Martin Shkreli might be the "most hated man in America."  Bloomberg Business opted for the adjective "notorious" when describing Shkreli's business history. The Daily Beast said Shkreli is "Big Pharma's Biggest A**hole." And more than one publication, including this one, has taken to referring to Shkreli as a "bro," with various modifiers.

But the term that might well cement Shkreli's status as a symbol of modern rapaciousness will probably be his own. In an interview with CBS News on Tuesday, Shkreli described his decision to boost the price of a lifesaving drug he purchased the rights to by more than 4,000 percent as "altruistic."

[How an obscure drug's 4,000 percent price increase might finally spur cost action]

Yes. That is what the man said. Read his exact words for yourself:

"Our first and primary stakeholder is patients. There's no doubt about that," he said on CBS. He said that the price of the drug had been so low that "any company selling it would be losing money" and that at the new price, there would be "a reasonable profit, not excessive at all."
"I can see how it looks greedy, but I think there's a lot of altruistic properties to it," he said.

By my count there are at least two words in there that should give anyone pause. "Stakeholder" is a buzzword if there ever was one, often deployed strategically in the midst of controversy to communicate the alleged import of some group that has until that moment been largely ignored or avoided. And "altruistic," in this context, would appear to be plainly abused.

This is not generally what altruism looks like on a graph.

Shkreli is the founder and chief executive of the pharmaceutical company Turing. He and his company have, of course, been the subjects of widespread news coverage this week after the New York Times highlighted Shkreli's decision to boost the cost of the more-than-60-year-old drug Daraprim from $13.50 to $750 after the company purchased the drug in August. The drug, developed long ago (i.e. the research costs were borne by a previous owner of the drug), is not exactly a frequently used medication but is considered the most effective drug and therefore the standard of care for people suffering with an infection called toxoplasmosis.

Turing has a history of business practices and antics that have made Shkreli the subject of regulatory inquiries from the very start of his career. He's a former hedge fund manager who moved a few years ago from the world of buying and selling biotechnology stocks to the industry that creates them. Shkreli told Bloomberg Business that he wants to "cure many diseases and save children’s lives."

Educated at the City University of New York's Baruch College, Shkreli is reportedly smart enough to have skipped multiple grades. So it's fair to say that he probably employs words such as "altruistic" with a clear intent.

Watch: Here's the deal with the $750-pill guy (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

He's used other words, too. Over the last few days -- before Shkreli altered the settings on his Twitter account to make its contents more difficult to read -- he called a reporter who asked about the price increase a "moron." He also claimed there was simply no reason to associate the price change with avarice. The "altruism" to which Shkreli refers is this: The price increase and the profits it creates would be used to research and develop alternative treatments for toxoplasmosis that cause fewer side effects.

Now, it has to be said here that Daraprim is considered the best type of care because it is effective and its side effects are manageable. A series of stories published about the price increase and Shkreli's altruism claim includes doctors -- particularly infectious-disease specialists -- who say just that. It's also only fair to say that Shkreli isn't the only pharmaceutical executive who has decided to boost the price of life-sustaining drugs developed long ago. This has begun to happen with such frequency that the issue has drawn congressional attention. This week, prescription drug costs became an issue on the presidential campaign. And Shkreli did announce plans Tuesday to lower the price of Daraprim but put no firm number on that promise.

Shkreli said only that the price will continue to allow for a profit. A second drug company, which owns a treatment for tuberculosis, also announced plans to cut its price after its own significant hike, the New York Times reported.

[Amid uproar over 4,000% increase, Shkreli says he will lower price]

Shkreli also said that "mistakes were made," in communicating the reasons for the price increase. Yes, that old chestnut.

What he did not say was: I was shortsighted or selfish in focusing on extracting more money from the people who need the drug my company owns. I want to find a better balance between patient needs and running a business structured to seek profit. I am sorry.

He said, "Mistakes were made."

Hillary Clinton had something to say about Shkreli and his decision to raise Daraprim's prices -- that it was "price gouging." Clinton also released a plan this week that would cap out-of-pocket pharmaceutical costs at $250 a month.

[Clinton proposing $250 monthly cap on prescription drug costs for patients]

This is an issue that is crying out for political action. Even before the Shkreli situation blew up, 76 percent of Americans said the rising costs of prescription drugs should be the No. 1 priority when it comes to health care in this country. The same pollster showed that about three-fourths of Americans who think drug costs are too high blame the pharmaceutical companies rather than insurers.

Shkreli might well connect with some kind of crisis manager who can save him from himself. But short of that, he seems poised to become a 21st-century symbol of greed and self-delusion for politicians -- a real-life Gordon Gekko.

And in politics, there is nothing more irresistible than a good bogeyman.