Drugs

How Big Pharma Is Corrupting the Truth About the Drugs It Sells Us

Where's the government oversight we need to stop this?

Photo Credit: ASDF Media / Shutterstock

Remember how appalled we felt as a society when we discovered that, for so long, we had been mistakenly taking Big Tobacco’s word that cigarettes are harmless? Rinse and repeat with lobbyists for Big Alcohol fear-mongering about legal weed. And again and again with a panoply of consumer-level commodities and goods.

Nowadays we have all these familiar worries, but about our drugs and medications instead. It’s become so bad that there's now reason to believe Big Pharma is also colluding to poison the well of scientific inquiry.

The truth is, there are many examples of private industry paying for positive press from the scientific community. When you look closer at our spending priorities as a nation, it’s not entirely difficult to see why. As public funding for the sciences has fallen away, many scientists have had to pivot toward more consistent—and ethically fraught—sources of funding and stability as surely as politicians who, for want of public election funding, get buoyed by billionaires at $100,000-per-plate fundraising dinners.

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We’ll take a look at case studies in a moment, but for right now, think about how important it is for us to be able to trust, at a minimum level, the products we invite into our bodies and our homes.

It’s become common knowledge that the pharmaceutical industry is one of the most corrupt out there. This is a serious affront to justice that has gone on for far too long. The fight for consumer protections of all kinds can and must begin with health care, medicines, prescription drugs and medical devices. Here are the stakes.

The Erosion of Trust

In 2006, GlaxoSmithKline—the esoteric name for a ubiquitous diabetes treatment brand—took a victory lap after a lengthy report in the New England Journal of Medicine declared its Avandia medication to be the most effective of the three diabetes drugs tested.

Unfortunately for readers and patients, the extent of the report’s bias was not as attention-grabbing as the headline and ensuing celebratory press releases. In fact, with the help of the FDA and renowned heart specialist Steven Nissen, the Washington Post found that GlaxoSmithKline directly funded the research itself. All 11 of the paper's authors had received consultation fees, grants or another form of monetary compensation.

There may be no clearer example of conflicts of interest in the halls of science. Given the degree to which private money may have influenced the result of this scientific endeavor, we have little choice but to assume it did.

Even worse? The drug didn’t merely fail to help patients cope with their illnesses, it actually raised their risk of heart attack. Avandia effectively doesn’t exist anymore in the U.S., in part because GlaxoSmithKline was so busy trying to force two logical dots to connect that it didn’t even pick up on all the collateral damage.

This is outrageous. Consumers shouldn’t have to second-guess the medical professionals who are supposed to help us take care of ourselves.

The Fall of Accountable Science

Between 2011 and 2012, the New England Journal of Medicine published more than 70 “original studies” of newly FDA-approved and experimental drugs. Of these 70-plus reports:

  • Sixty received direct pharmaceutical company funding.
  • Fifty were written or co-written by a current employee of a pharmaceutical company.
  • Thirty-seven had lead writers who had, at some point, received speaking fees or other compensation from the subject of the study.

Up until about the 1980s, the federal government was the primary financier of scientific research in the world of medicine. In the '60s and '70s, the federal government had a 70 percent share of scientific research. In 2013, that number finally dropped below the 50 percent mark.

As you may have guessed, there is at least token legal oversight available for clinical investigations of new drugs in the form of FDA regulation. In addition to protecting the personal information of trial participants (patients), the FDA also maintains that no drug may reach the investigation phase until its effects—and its lack of harm—have both been documented in a lab setting. As you can likely tell, these protections no longer appear adequate.

It has become an open secret that most of the drugs the FDA concerns itself with cannot be relied upon to greatly outperform placebos, or existing treatments, in a vast majority of cases. Moreover, the wholesale regulatory capture of the FDA has resulted in a situation where this vital public office serves as a glorified rubber patent stamp for protecting medicines as privately owned, profit-generating pieces of intellectual property.

The American People Are No Longer in Control of Their Scientific Destiny

A generation or so ago, the skill with which a nation pursued and made use of scientific knowledge was one of the chief metrics of its greatness. However, starting in the 1980s, the United States took a decided turn away from public sector expansion. Reagan-era policies aimed to privatize government services in the name of balancing local and state budgets. Since then, the world has watched as Americans have continued to vote accountable government and transparent scientific study nearly out of existence by proponents of “small government” and the shifting of fiscal, bureaucratic and legislative power from the public to the private sector.

When corporatists boast of the rate of innovation in the private sector, they generally fail to mention where the money came from that makes all that innovation possible—or what America used to do with it instead. In truth, privatization does not necessarily lead to less government, as its proponents would like to believe. In many cases of privatized innovation, the government still plays a significant role along the value chain of innovation.

The difference, though, is that instead of the government being involved for the sake of oversight and accountability, profit-seeking privatized enterprises can lobby for the expansion of public funding just the same as those in the public sector would. Those private companies can then skim off only the most successful ventures. It’s simply another example of how the government continues to turn a blind eye to unethical, profit-mongering business practices in the name of “trickle down economics,” which we know have not worked in the past.

However, the winds of change seem to be shifting. For all our present social and political turmoil, we’re more aware of the problem than ever before. But before we can fix it, we must remember science is, like any other endeavor, a human institution.

Like a passionate grade-school teacher who can’t do her best work due to a lack of school funding, scientists of all stripes are, after all, human beings with their own biases, internal monologues, ideas, agendas and needs. Science is one of the most vitally important institutions we have right now. Most Americans say it’s very nearly the only thing that matters in the face of global, anthropocentric climate change, but it’s currently perishing from neglect.

Here is the silver lining: Though junk science seems to have a stubborn place in the spotlight and in our shared vocabulary, scientists are actively trying to turn the tables. Inspired in part by the fallout from the 2016 election, American scientists are seeking political office at a brisk clip—and being vocal about it, too.

Additionally, it seems that we are finally collectively beginning to wake up to the enormous disservices that Big Pharma has done our society. Throwing our support behind scientist-politicians could be one aid to the problem, but we also need to address the bigger issues at hand with how our medical knowledge is funded and who we can trust to provide us with real answers to medical questions.

Government oversight and funding are important aspects of that, and improved transparency regarding where we’re getting our “science” is something people are finally starting to advocate for, and should continue to. With this two-part awakening in both the scientific and general community, we can only hope that we are, at last, reaching the end of the road for scientific illiteracy in the States.

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Kate Harveston is an online journalist and the owner of political blog Only Slightly Biased. Follow her on Twitter at @KateHarveston.