If you have ever gone in for a doctor’s visit pre-pandemic with a sore throat, a runny nose and sneezing fits, your doctor visit probably went something like this. A strep test is ordered, the results come back negative and the doctor dismisses it as some viral infection. You are not coughing, but you receive a prescription for cough syrup. You go home, not bothering to stop at the pharmacy for the unnecessary cough syrup. Alternatively, the strep test comes back positive, you receive a prescription for antibiotics. Regardless, you are leaving that doctor’s office with a prescription of some kind. In this case, your average doctor’s visit is harmless, you just have the common cold or strep. However, imagine you arrive at the doctor’s office complaining of the worst back pain of your life. That prescription you receive could change your life.
From the overprescription of medications to the exuberant prices of life saving drugs, big pharma is addicted to profiting off of people’s illnesses. The many sins of the pharmaceutical industry could not possibly be addressed in a single article. Therefore, I will focus on three major case studies which highlight the pharmaceutical industry’s greed and complete disregard for human life — the opioid crisis, the rise in antibiotic abuse and resistance and the manufacturing and cost of drugs.
The pharmaceutical industry’s interest in opioids began in the early 1900s when they introduced heroin — the highly addictive opiate — to the American populace as a less addictive painkiller than morphine. Due to minimal government oversight and regulation, the heroin market thrived. Presently, heroin is recognized as a drug with no therapeutic or legitimate medical use and is illegal per the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. However, the Food and Drug Administration foolishly allowed a new drug that is chemically similar to heroin to enter the market called OxyContin — leading to the modern opioid crisis.
In the 1990s, Purdue Pharma began illegally promoting OxyContin as less addictive than other opiates on the market. This led to a series of opioid related deaths and subsequent lawsuits against the company. It is not just Purdue who is being held liable in these cases, Johnson & Johnson, CVS and Walgreens have also been charged for false marketing and distributing pills they knew were being abused. The company is expected to pay over a $12 billion settlement which will be distributed to the respective states involved over several lawsuits. However, no amount of money could ever attone for the 564,000 lives lost to illicit and prescription opioids since 1999.
We can also largely blame the pharmaceutical industry for the impending superbug crisis as demonstrated by their long history in contributing to antibiotics resistance. As soon as penicillin was discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming and subsequently used to treat wounded soldiers during WWII, early pharmaceutical companies began manufacturing penicillin en masse. Penicillin really was a miracle drug, until it quickly led to antibiotic resistant bacteria. The same companies who initially manufactured penicillin no longer see the economic viability in creating new antibiotics — as they are no longer profitable in contrast to sales — or in research to combat the growing superbug crisis. Today, there is evidence that pharmaceutical companies are even responsible for dumping antibiotics into wastewater during the manufacturing process. Finding new methods of combating these superbugs and holding pharmaceutical companies responsible for the damages is urgent as antibiotic resistance killed an estimated 1.27 million in 2019 alone, and is slated to kill 10 million more by 2050.
Then there is the issue of the exuberant costs of medications when the manufacturing process does not reflect those costs. More than 66 percent of American adults rely on prescription medications. Unfortunately, prescription medications often cost more in the U.S. than they do in other high income countries. Why is this? Well, the U.S. does not negotiate or regulate the cost of prescriptions when they enter the market. Instead, the pharmaceutical industry gets to decide the cost and has the ability to obtain patents on life-saving drugs — putting them further out of reach for the everyday consumer. While this is great for innovation and capitalism, it is not so great for the average American. The free market of medications also means that any drug deemed safe by the FDA gets to compete with other similar drugs even if they are worse than their competitors. In order to combat this absurdity and drive prescription costs down, the U.S. needs to start regulating all medications and stop relying on outside investors to fund innovation for new drugs.
Big pharma is — and always was — a corrupt industry chasing profits and exploiting human disease. All three of these case studies could be better handled if we listened to scientists, researchers and medical experts. Unfortunately, adding the allure of profit into the mix can easily corrupt anyone into discounting human life for the sake of greed. However, there are solutions. For one, the U.S. government needs to start respecting science and make scientific innovations more accessible. Additionally, it must allocate internal resources towards scientific research in order to explore alternatives to expensive drugs. This includes funding phage therapy as a potential solution to the superbug crisis. It needs to crack down on pharmaceutical monopolies, impose strict regulations on the drug market and introduce price caps on life-saving medications. As a society, we need to stop stigmatizing addiction and chronic disease, and start stigmatizing greed.
Yssis Cano-Santiago is an Opinion Columnist who writes on Health, Technology and the Environment for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.