OPINION: Stop brushing aside Big Pharma’s corporate greed and corruption

Some pills are splayed out on money.
Start questioning Big Pharma’s corporate greed and corruption, argues Sae Furukawa PO ’25 (Courtesy: Chris Potter via Flickr)

Convincing healthy people that they are sick seems ridiculous, but it just may work. “Knock,” a 1923 satirical French play written by Jules Romains, tells the story of a small village with a perfectly healthy population that transforms into a hub of medical tourism. The protagonist, Knock, who comes to the village as a new doctor, convinces the population that they are sicker than they believe and successfully establishes a money-making scheme through deception and manipulation. 

“Knock” is a reflection of the larger phenomenon in contemporary society where the general public is indoctrinated or institutionalized by a particular belief and ideology that dominates current establishments and social norms. As today’s generations put utter trust in so-called “science,” medical research institutions and pharmaceutical companies are granted the absolute authority to determine what’s right and wrong. They manipulate the public into believing their rhetoric in a way that ensures corporate interests without accountability.

Many underlying issues of the pharmaceutical industry may be attributed to its economic structure. As pharmaceutical companies claim intellectual rights to drugs and exclude competitors from entering the market, the industry is largely monopolized. Big Pharma is able to set prices freely in a way that prioritizes corporate benefits over patients. The high prices also create the illusion among consumers that drugs are meant to be, or deserve to be, expensive. 

In reality, drugs’ intrinsic values are far less than their market prices. Moreover, the monopolization of the pharmaceutical industry has further exacerbated public health inequality around the world, with developing countries still struggling to access essential drugs. According to the Guardian, manufacturing companies, especially in India, have been attempting to provide generic drugs to patients in developing countries, yet their endeavors have been continuously hindered by Big Pharma, who use patent rights to restrain their operations to the disadvantage of the poor.  

While it seems inevitable that corporations prioritize profits over customers, a series of instances have demonstrated that the monopolization of the pharmaceutical industry is especially problematic due to its immense power over what constitutes “public knowledge.” Gerald Posner, an investigative journalist and author of the book “Pharma,” recounts how medical marketing has contributed to the overprescription of drugs like painkillers and antidepressants, resulting in “untold health harms.” As a part of their marketing strategies, pharmaceutical companies have promoted highly addictive drugs to regulators as a safe product, only to later cause severe withdrawal symptoms among patients. 

In addition to price setting and manipulative medical marketing, the conflicts of interest among medical researchers has contributed to Big Pharma’s consolidation of power. A 2017 Cochrane Review found that results and conclusions of a medical trial funded by a pharmaceutical company tended to be in the company’s favor far more than an independent trial. By influencing the results of clinical trials, industry funding further accelerates the power centralization of Big Pharma, who would then have an easier time convincing patients of the effectiveness and usability of drugs in the name of “science.” But if medical research is susceptible to bias depending on who funds it, then it seems absurd to argue that medical science is objective or universal — undermining the reliability and objectivity of “science” altogether. 

But let’s make one thing clear: I am not arguing that “science” as a discipline is necessarily unreliable. Instead, my focus here is a concern toward the general trend in society where people don’t think critically of or challenge the institutions whose rhetoric of manipulation invades every bit of their lives. Just like how any criticism toward Catholic churches was demoralized back in medieval Europe, questioning medical institutions is nowadays prone to receiving public backlash. 

Those who claim that “public health shouldn’t be politicized” must acknowledge that medical science itself may be ruled or fabricated by stakeholders competing for corporate interests — which, for pharmaceutical companies, are probably far more important than public health at all. If individuals remain unable to challenge Big Pharma, either out of ignorance or fear of repercussions, there will be no real progress made in terms of the industry’s transparency and exploitation of medical science.

Sae Furukawa PO ’25 is from Tokyo, Japan. She loves nonfiction, documentaries and Coppola’s films.

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