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Big Pharma Conspiracy – The Deadly Mistrust in Medicine
Every day I see memes flash by on my Facebook feed 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 the throat of a child, 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 the 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 real issues of the pharma industry, fake problems are created, and the industry is allowed to continue in their old ways. The industry has very real problems 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?
Big Bad Pharma – A Grain of Truth
Why do we have the myth of the all-powerful and evil Big Bad Pharma?
Well, for a good conspiracy theory to spread you need a grain of truth. For the UFOs, there might have been weird 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.
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 has the potential to 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!
However, 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.
The Deadly Mistrust in Medications
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.
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 rules and legislations of the industry. No nemesis. No Doctor Evil. Just regular people 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.”
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 the conspiracy theories, people must now also die or suffer because they are not medicated. Also, 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.
For good suggestions on how to proceed, I warmly recommend to read the books Bad Science and Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre.
We will read Bad Science in Doctor Anna’s Bookclub on Facebook starting June 8th, 2018.
Read more about the science of science communication!