Opinion: the demonisation of the pharmaceutical industry is both cynical and intellectually lazy

Conspiracy theories exist as means for people to reassure themselves that there is order in a chaotic world. They show people can control their immediate environment and that nothing is meaningless or random. When faced with an adverse situation where they are completely helpless, they look for a culprit to blame for their suffering.

This is exactly the case in regards to the Big Pharma conspiracy theory. This states that the medical establishment and large pharmaceutical companies operate for nefarious purpose and against the public good by withholding treatments for cancer and other diseases in order to maximise their profits. Although the reasons for people to latch onto this theory may be tragic and understandable in the face of dreadful situations in their own lives, it does not hold any truth. For researchers breaking their backs and toiling to seek cures for diseases, it is just plain insulting.

There are many reasons why this conspiracy theory is invalid and why we should focus instead on the incredible work being carried out by talented, dedicated scientists. The main argument behind the conspiracy is that Big Pharma companies stand to make huge profits from withholding cures for certain diseases and do exactly that to the detriment of public health. Instead of releasing a final cure for cancer, these companies are keeping it under wraps so they can give out expensive, long-term treatments instead and make more money. 

You can't disregard the emotional impact diseases such as cancer have on people from every walk of life and socio-economic background.

According to the American Cancer Society, 600,000 deaths will be caused by cancer in 2018. That’s 600,000 potential customers for the pharmaceutical companies. Wouldn’t they stand to make a much bigger profit to keep these people alive as long as possible?

People who live average lifespans undoubtedly use a lot more prescription medications throughout the course of a full life including drugs for ailments such as heart disease, cholesterol, blood pressure and arthritis. Why let these people die early in life when they could become life-long users of your products? With huge amounts of people dying of early on-set cancers, pharmaceutical companies are killing off potential future customers, if they are holding back cures for them, something which is simply poor business practice.

Not only would Big Pharma benefit financially from increasing the life-span of their customers, they would only see this benefit if they kept people hooked on their medications for life, which is counterpoint to the effort they put into developing vaccines. If they were purely concerned about achieving the highest profit margin possible, preventing the diseases they provide drugs to treat would be a very poor move financially. A prime example of this is Merck developing a vaccine for cervical cancer which prevents millions of women from getting the disease, instead of developing a chronic treatment delivered over a lifetime to keep them alive. 

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From RTÉ Radio One's Morning Ireland in 2016, a report on how adoctors and hospitals are influenced by pharma companies

People seem to forget that a huge chunk of scientific research is carried out in academic settings such as universities which are not run by corporate organisations. Thousands of researchers work together and collaborate to push the boundaries of scientific research every day.

There is a common misconception that all major breakthroughs are "eureka!" moments where a single researcher is struck by inspiration in an instant. The reality is that there are literally thousands of researchers working on any one problem at any given time and discoveries will be known within certain circles before they are ever even published. Even if famous researchers such as James Watson and Francis Crick (who discovered the structure of DNA) or Charles Darwin (introduced theory of evolution) had been silenced or paid off, it would only be a matter of time before their discoveries were made independently by other researchers and published to a waiting world. 

It is the same today. Academic scientists want their papers to be published and read so they can secure more grant money to continue their lab research and secure awards and faculty positions. And of course, for the researcher who invents the cure for cancer, there is most certainly a Nobel Prize on the horizon and the prestige and fame that comes with it.

We should focus instead on the incredible work being carried out by talented, dedicated scientists

On a more compassionate note, you can't disregard the emotional impact diseases such as cancer have on people from every walk of life and socio-economic background. You would be hard-pressed to find a single scientist, researcher or pharmaceutical executive who hasn’t been touched by the disease themselves in some way. Cancer affects everyone.

Contrary to popular belief, scientists aren’t soulless machines who don’t care about the impact that their research is doing. Pharmaceutical company executives aren’t cash hungry maniacs hell-bent on squeezing every penny they can out of the public. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. In my experience, I have only come across people who are scientists because they genuinely want to help people and are excited about the possibilities that lay in store for the future of mankind with the fantastic work being carried out on a daily basis. To state that these people are only concerned about their next pay day is insulting to the sacrifices they make to pursue their passion - and it undermines the brilliant work they carry out.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ