Levy: Stop Hating on Big Pharma

Demonizing large drug companies is a dangerous game.

by Gabrielle Levy | 11/7/19 2:15am

I recently participated in a class discussion about the propagandist nature of commercials for prescription drugs. As I listened to my classmates, I was struck by the predominance of negative beliefs about the pharmaceutical industry. After doing some research, I found that my classroom served as a representative microcosm of American society — a recent study using a comparison of favorability ratings from U.S. citizens found that the pharmaceutical sector is the “most loathed” industry in the country. 

In recent years, “Big Pharma” companies have gained a bad reputation for pill-pushing, profit-seeking behavior that prioritizes financial gain over human lives. However, we shouldn’t be so quick to demonize Big Pharma. Contrary to popular belief, the industry is not inherently corrupt, and demonizing Big Pharma opens the door to harmful, non-scientific beliefs. 

Many Americans take the biggest issue with the high price points of prescription drugs, subscribing to the widely-held belief that Big Pharma is corrupt and wasteful. In terms of corruption, there have unfortunately been numerous scandals that, although they are exceptions to the norm, have tarred the pharmaceutical industry as a whole. For instance, almost everyone is aware of Daraprim — the life-saving, parasite-treating pill whose price was hiked up 5,000 percent thanks to the greedy former CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, Martin Shkreli. Fewer Americans are aware, though, that prescription drug prices have remained constant in recent years, suggesting that we are not actually experiencing an epidemic of corrupt companies hiking up drug prices. 

It is important to remember that the majority of drugs are not priced maliciously, but instead, in proportion to the amount of research that went into their invention. Drug prices cannot be lowered indefinitely, as profits from prescription drugs must compensate for some of the costs of drug development, which is an inherently expensive endeavor. Indeed, a 2014 study by Tufts University found that the average approved modern drug costs over $2.5 billion to develop for the full product lifecycle. 

Along with drug prices, spending on prescription drugs has also remained relatively constant. Today, prescription drugs comprise only 14 percent of total U.S. health care spending. Because prescription drugs continue to comprise a relatively small part of overall costs related to health, it seems unreasonable to attack the pharmaceutical industry for wasteful spending. Instead, it makes more sense to focus on reducing wasted expenditures in other areas of the health care sector — such as administrative and insurance costs — in order to reduce health care costs for individual Americans.

Moreover, it is unfair to blame pharmaceutical companies for wasting money as Big Pharma companies shoulder the bulk of expenses for drug development. Pharmaceutical and biotech companies are responsible for funding around 75 percent of new drugs, with taxpayer-funded academic research funding only a small minority of new innovations. This cost analysis is important, as it gives tangible value to Big Pharma. Without these companies, we would not have many of the drugs we rely on in our everyday lives.

Ignoring the scientific necessity and advancements of Big Pharma and only focusing on the problems of the industry is not only short-sighted, but dangerous, as it provides an avenue for certain groups to propagate their anti-scientific beliefs. For instance, anti-vaccine activists latch on to popular contempt for Big Pharma companies to promote conspiracy theories concerning the safety of flu shots and other common, life-saving vaccines. Researchers have found that the most frequently occurring premise featured in anti-vaccine propaganda is that pharmaceutical companies can’t be trusted. And, as we have seen in recent years, vaccine hesitancy is extremely harmful to society as a whole in helping to drive outbreaks of preventable diseases like measles and mumps.

As future members of the workforce, policymakers and leaders, it is important that college students avoid the temptation to write off prominent pharmaceutical companies as inherently evil or corrupt. If we turn our backs on the industry, we are both unjustly ignoring the positive benefits pharmaceutical companies have on our society and opening the floodgates for an escalation of anti-science beliefs in future generations.