Big Pharma

The industries invested in developing, producing and marketing more treatment-oriented synthetic compounds (drugs or medications) - are seen variously with skepticism or appreciation, depending on one’s standpoint. For those who see certain medical treatments as improving quality of life or decreasing suffering - either in themselves or other family members - the industry is typically seen with gratitude. Some see pharmaceutical treatments as the “miracle of modern medicine” provided by the hand of God. Others see them as the triumph of humanism in the relentless quest for knowledge represented by science.

For others, the pharmaceutical industry has become a target of disdain and scorn, hence the pejorative label “Big Pharma.” Pharmaceutical companies are sometimes perceived as “only in it for the money,” that is, concerned only with how much profit they can make, ignoring any responsibility they might have to develop real solutions for pressing medical concerns. Such corporations are often seen as ignoring the sufferings of real people (especially those who have little money to spend) while they pursue easy, lucrative “copycat” medicines guaranteed to make money - while delivering little real help to those in need. The prices of medicines are also frequently questioned, and greater transparency is sought to determine whether the high costs of needed medicines can be justified. In addition, some medical treatments are seen as multiplying suffering and complicating quality of life for the benefit of “heartless” profit motives. Expensive treatments that later prove to be ineffective, or even harmful, are often brought up as proof that “Big Pharma” never had the best interests of the public at heart.

Supporters of the pharmaceutical industry are quick to counter these claims by citing the uncertainty inherent in medical research as well as the need to cover the steep costs and long timetables of pharmaceutical development and approval. In this view, an ungrateful public bites the hand that keeps it healthy. Pharmaceutical corporations deserve profound respect and greater freedom, not disdain and distrust.

Like all other industries, the research associated with whether pharmaceutical treatments are “safe, effective, and potent” remains highly contested along these same lines. In addition to the diverging standpoints described above, different funding streams have (unsurprisingly) been shown to correlate with the results of the research as well. The many connections between university research and pharmaceutical funding are also a cause of concern for many, leading to claims that the deceptions of the “big tobacco” years are far from over. Some point to steps being taken to ensure transparency in research funding; others point to the inadequacy and difficulty in policing those steps.

Finally, the immense regulatory costs of bringing drugs to market enhances the power of a few large corporations.  For instance, Tufts University estimated that the cost of bringing a new drug to market was almost $3 billion due largely to regulatory hurdles.  As a consequence of these costs, the drug industry has become highly concentrated in recent years.


-Are the influence and role of pharmaceutical companies of concern to you?  Why or why not?

-What role does the regulatory state play in promoting Big Pharma?

-Starting tomorrow, imagine you became CEO of every major company in the Big Pharma constellation. With all power at your fingertips, what would you do differently (or similarly) moving forward?

-Which is worse: a strong but unregulated pharmaceutical industry - capable but unmanaged - or a weak but highly regulated pharmaceutical industry - under control, transparent, fair, but lacking in resources? Why?