Big Bad Pharma – A Grain of Truth

Medical practitioner and big bad pharma

Big Pharma Conspiracy – The Deadly Mistrust in Medicine

Every day I see memes flash by on my social media feeds with texts like “educate before you medicate/vaccinate” or “what if I told you that exercise is better than any antidepressant.” The images are emotional and often depict things like somebody forcing pills down a child’s throat, or the well-known snaps from the film Matrix indicating that we live within a conspiracy: The Big Pharma conspiracy.

I have a few problems with this. The first is medicine-shaming. Many people are relying on medications to have functional lives. They often have heavy burdens to bear as is and to shame them further is, in my opinion, a despicable thing to do.

The second problem I have with these lines of argumentation is that they encourage people to chase windmills. Instead of focusing on the pharma industry’s real issues, fake problems are created, and the industry is allowed to continue in their old ways. The industry has genuine issues that should have been dealt with yesterday. In my opinion, the conspiracies block this progress.

I am very unhappy with this situation. I would very much like a well-run and well-regulated pharma industry and a world where people don’t have to feel ashamed for taking life-saving medications such as antidepressants.
So, what happened?

Well, for a good conspiracy theory to spread, you need a grain of truth. Regarding the UFOs, there might indeed have been strange lights in the sky that the government didn’t want to talk about mid-cold-war. Military exercises weren’t that uncommon around the Roswell area after all

Pyramid of health and the pharma industry

Why do we have the myth of the all-powerful and evil Big Bad Pharma?

For the pharmaceutical industry, there’s more than just a grain of truth. Many companies have done little to earn the trust of the general public. There have been scandals such as Thalidomide/Neurosedyn and Primodos. Also, their aggressive marketing, pricing scandals, and poor communication haven’t served them well. Don’t even get me started on the non-publication of negative results that can potentially skew study outcomes significantly.

Their cause also hasn’t been helped by statements like that from Goldmann-Sachs: “‘Is curing patients a sustainable business model?'”. Add to this unholy concoction the likes of Martin Shkreli, and I’m not that surprised that people feel pissed off and helpless and are ready to spin the conspiracy yarn.

However, what people tend to forget is that due to the research that has been done by the pharmaceutical industry, we have better medications today than humanity has ever had. I have family members that wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for this research. I am myself #MedicatedAndMighty due to my chronic illness endometriosis. Thanks for giving me a painless life, Bayer pharmaceuticals!

The real Big Bad Pharma

Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that all is well with this industry. It isn’t, and that’s shameful considering the enormous impact this has on all of our lives.
Instead of joining movements lobbying for better regulations around the pharma industry, people spend their free time sharing memes on Facebook: “Chemicals are bad” “Natural is great.”
They often conclude that everything that is produced by a pharmaceutical company and ordinated by a medical doctor is terrible and part of a hidden, evil agenda pushed by Big Pharma. This agenda is only acknowledged by a selected group of “woke” people, the rebel forces fighting against the imperial occupation. Us others are Sheeple, slaves to the agenda of Big Bad Pharma

The deadly mistrust in medications

They create a boogie man with diametrically different opinions to them. The mental process is easy, comfortable, and energy-saving; there’s no worry about if you are right or wrong because you’re right. Always. The boogie man is, per definition, wicked. End of story. The world explained.

A part of me secretly wishes that the world would be this simple and black & white. It would be easier to fight the Sith Lords than an industry full of ordinary people, people like you and me, who merely follow the industry’s rules and legislations. No nemesis. No Doctor Evil. Just regular people that are stuck in a system of skewed laws.
The truth is complicated and tedious and hard to grasp. Reality can be quite draining.

As Ben Goldacre so brilliantly puts it:
“Problems in medicine do not mean that homeopathic sugar pills work; just because there are problems with aircraft design, that doesn’t mean that magic carpets really fly.”

Conspiracy theory QAnon

Big Herba – better than Big Pharma?

Interestingly, what people often fail to see is that Big Herba/Big Natural is an even less controlled industry than Big Pharma. The US legislation around alternative medications is very lash. You can almost sell anything and get away with it. Kidney and liver damages due to the ingestion of poorly controlled substances aren’t uncommon.

The current situation

The result of this windmill fighting is a situation where Big Pharma is still free to carry out non-transparent research, use aggressive marketing tactics, and sell to those in need for astronomical sums. In addition to this, due to conspiracy theories, people must now also die or suffer because they are not medicated. New unethical branches of the “natural” movement have sprung to life, a whole forest of David Avocado Wolfes feeding your fear and grabbing your cash.

I think it is time to stop chasing UFOs and fighting windmills and deal with the real issues.

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  1. Quite often it’s fundamental ignorance of what substances actually are and how they (and us) work that is the problem. Nobody likes to feel ignorant, partly because questioning seems to be actively discouraged in most schools (but that’s another story) and is equated with weakness. So, many simply do not have the language to think about it. The gap left by absent words is where superstition creeps in, and hey presto, snake oil is the answer. It’s easier to say and spell. And yes, the bid pharma companies also do this very same thing but call it advertising.

  2. Well said. I’ve seen this with close family and friends. Not just with Pharma vs Natural, but all along the spectrum of politics/religion/ideologies. They are so afraid of the boogie man, that they rush into something even worse.

  3. Accurate. Now how do we improve? Interested in other people’s suggestions – I am going to make some off the top of my head suggestions,but I know these are not great;
    – push the idea that intellectual property law using a lengthy monopoly to reward and encourage innovation is not necessarily a good model.
    – As long as IP monopolies exist, then monopsonys by state medication purchasers should be seen as acceptable, even desirable, (like New Zealand’s Pharmac).
    – push the idea all ressearch should be freely available
    – push the idea all resarch including underlying data must be accessible (if not published in a journal, out there on the net) to try to oevrcome publication bias against research with a nul result.
    – push the idea that research which DOESN’T show something is effective is good research
    – media guidelines for acceptable coverage without hyperbole (Cancer cure found!) or artificial controversy (new research overturns everything we thought we knew!)

  4. Absolutely brilliantly put, the whole big herba, woo industry in general, I really can’t understand it’s advocates lack of logic, they argue it’s all about the money with big pharma, however it’s not like all the snake oil they are using is free, they act like these people aren’t charging extortionate amounts for this shite, that’s either useless or dangerous for the most part, preying on the sick and the desperate and they have the neck to say we’re the ones without morals. I personally would be screwed without big pharma and because in Ireland if your income is below a certain means, you get free medical care and our prescriptions only cost €2 per item up to a cap of €20 pm, when Irish woo fanatics try to argue the financial side of things, it literally doesn’t translate contextually at all, but I’m assuming this is because it’s stuff they’ve picked up from a American base and they are just repeating what they’ve been told to say.

  5. thanks a lot dr anna for creating this space!
    reading your blog and following you and the group of crazy wonderful people here and in facebook does a great deal in helping me to fill my arsenal in discussions with antivaxxers and conspirational morons i come across (feels like they are growing exponentially)…
    i always find a great deal of fun and (scientific solid) info around you and your platforms and that helps me building a well founded base of arguments for those often tiresome discussions i can and will not avoid.