American Big Pharma: The Bad, The Ugly & The Even Worse.

Exploring the unjust Big Pharma: unethical side of America’s Pharmaceutical Industry.

Big pharma
Cover Photo by @dmitrybayer from Unsplash

What is “Big Pharma”

“Big Pharma,” the abbreviated term for the U.S’s major Pharmaceutical industry, is synonymous with overly expensive, yet direly important drugs, controlled by those seeking to profit off those who need them. While that may seem like an overtly biased statement, there are glaring documents and instances proving that the pharmaceutical industry is about money, not public health. PhRMA (Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America), a trade group made up of Pharmaceutical conglomerates and medical device companies, is estimated to have gross revenue of $1 trillion in 2014. Six key U.S Pharmaceutical companies make up “Big Pharma.” Out of the six, household favorite, Johnson & Johnson is the world’s highest-grossing Pharma company with a whopping $276 billion market value.

The industry is riddled with corruption and conspiracy. Big Pharma is annually involved in major federal lawsuits. The latest ones being a $260 million opioid settlement between two Ohio counties, McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen drug distributors, and a $10-12 billion settlement between Purdue Pharma and the federal government, both associated with Big Pharma’s involvement in America’s Opioid Crisis. Other lawsuits include Johnson and Johnson’s $2.2 billion fine for “promoting off-label use of their drugs,” Pfizer paying $2.3 billion for illegally marketing it’s drug Bextra, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) having to pay $3 billion due to “deceptive marketing,” and promotion of off-label usage. The lawsuits don’t stop there, the list goes on and on and on, and will continue until heavy regulations are placed on the Big Pharma industry.

Who benefits from Big Pharma

Image by @grocharios from Unsplash

Due to loophole regulations that allow Pharmaceutical companies to act without the Federal Government’s discretion, Big Pharma is often cited for giving the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hefty sums of money to account for the FDA’s annual budget. Big Pharma’s influential reach is too grand to ignore with 1,378 lobbyists and an average lobbying budget of $233 million per year at their disposal. Since Pharma is in control of some financial stability within the FDA, one can assume that the billions of dollars in fines the industry gets charged barely makes a dent in their endless pocket of money. Even though billions of American taxpayer dollars go to funding prescription research, Pharma companies get massive tax credits and deductions from advertising, marketing, and researching; it seems like federal laws are set up to favor Big Pharma’s constant flow of money.

That is not necessarily a bad thing if all the money goes to researching, but it doesn’t.

In 2014, Johnson & Johnson’s CEO Alex Gorsky received a $24.9 million yearly payout, and  Regeneron’s CEO Len Schleifer got $41.97 million in 2014. All that money accounts for just the CEO’s wallets, not mentioning the other high-paid employees, doctors, researching, and advertising spent annually by Big Pharma companies. Big Pharma pays doctors to prescribe and recommend other doctors the more expensive name-brand drugs than the cheaper generic drug.

Who is hurt by it?

Image by @marusyaionova from Unsplash

Pharma is the most hated industry in the United States, for good reason. According to a 2019 Gallup poll, 58% of American’s think negatively about Pharmaceutical companies. Why? Well, for starters, Big Pharma has been abusing the patent system by creating patents on generic versions of necessary drugs, thus making the cost of the drugs astronomically high for those without adequate health insurance. Low-income households suffer the most from Big Pharma’s monopolization of drug patents. Due to the myriad of patents pharmaceutical companies file, lack of competition has resulted in a 68% increase in pricing since 2012. The patents often impede Global access to the generic drugs, in turn blocking access to those in developing countries, “indirectly killing thousands of poor people from countries in Africa and Asia.”

The rise in insulin prices has also caused much turmoil for Diabetics. Eily Lilly, a pharmaceutical company in control of a large chunk of the United States’ insulin used to charge a mere $21 for a one-month supply of insulin in 1996, however, this increased to $275 by 2019. The monopolization of necessary drugs has resulted in U.S. patients trekking to Canada where drugs are cheaper and outrageous co-pays are non-existent. American diabetics have resorted to rationing their insulin, one diabetes activist claiming that “People are being forced to go to emergency rooms. People are having their legs amputated. They are going blind. They are having heart disease, liver damage” due to rationing.

With 70% of Americans needing prescription medication, 1 in 4 of them cannot afford to pay for the expensive drug and have a high-deductible plan. Seeing how American’s spent $334 billion on prescription drugs in 2017, people are spending more to survive in a system meant to abuse them at their lowest.

How Big Pharma is contributing to the U.S Opioid Crisis

Image by @hikendal from Unsplash

The Pharmaceutical industry is credited with starting the U.S Opioid Crisis plaguing low and high-income neighborhoods alike. Purdue Pharma is the company responsible for the creation and marketing of popular prescription opioid, Oxycontin. In 2001, Purdue spent $200 million on aggressive marketing tactics to promote Oxycontin as a painkiller for non-cancer-related pain. Purdue analyzed doctors with common prescribing patterns. Those that favored liberal opioid prescription were briefed by Purdue about Oxycontin, in exchange for a “small” pay-cut should the doctor prescribe it to a patient. Though relatively new to the “painkiller world,” opioids were known to be highly addictive and easily misused. However, Purdue “trained its sales representatives to carry the message that the risk of addiction was ‘less than one percent.’” In 2007, three company executives pled guilty to criminally misbranding Oxycontin as being “less addictive.” They were fined $634 million, a mere slap on the wrist since Oxycontin’s sales went from $44 million in 1996 to $3 billion in 2002. Even though Purdue was criminally charged, the damage had already been done. Since 1999, 2 million Americans get addicted to opioids every year. Doctors are made to prescribe larger than needed amounts of opioids, tell their naive patients to take them liberally, and watch them get hooked on the drug. Yet, doctors can only legally prescribe a patient so many opioids before they need to cut them off, resulting in the patient resorting to street sellers of pills. When those get too expensive, they go for the cheaper stuff, heroin. A vicious cycle of patient abuse, doctoral malpractice, and conniving pharmaceutical companies trying to obtain money from any angle possible.

Big Pharma’s deep pockets allow them to control those who set laws to prohibit them from doing what they’re doing. Pharma keeps the politicians cozy with paid-for vacations, free meetings, and funding. It will take time for the regulators to start pushing for the removal of Big Pharma’s political gain, and hopefully, start moving towards affordable and ethical prescription drugs. By supporting activists who seek to better the pharmaceutical industry, we are growing closer to stopping injustice at the hands of those who should protect us.

Daniella Fishman


Daniella is an NYC born adventurer with a love of traveling, writing, eating, and rollerskating. Dani is passionate about supporting local communities and exploring everything from bustling city life to quiet woodland retreats. There is an adventure around every corner if you open your eyes and mind to it.

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