Should Consumers Trust Big Pharma?
Lots of people don’t trust Big Pharma. And to a significant extent, that’s for good reasons. (I’ve blogged about some of those reasons here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here, just to cite a few examples. See also some of the entries on the other blog I co-author, the Research Ethics Blog.)
Trust in big pharma is an important issue. Pharmaceuticals are responsible for saving and improving a huge number of lives. Vaccines alone have prevented literally millions of deaths. Survival rates for many cancers are better than they used to be. And AIDS, once a death sentence, is now regarded as a chronic disease. So there’s real benefit from pharma, but also an undeniable track record of scandals and general unethical behaviour. What should we think?
The first thing worth noting is that the question in the title above is vastly oversimplified. The question isn’t “should consumers trust big pharma?”, it’s more like “To what extent, and under what circumstances, on what issues, should consumers trust big pharma?”
Setting aside the industry’s spotty track record, the main reason people tend not to think Big Pharma trustworthy is, of course, the fact that Big Pharma consists of profit-oriented organizations. And the general assumption is that money corrupts. Of course, money isn’t the only thing that corrupts judgment (so does love, reputation, ideology, etc etc), and big pharma is far from the only industry where big money is at stake. But still, there’s a real worry here (one I’ve blogged about before).
Now, what about the reasons in favour of trusting Big Pharma? What factors would tend to make Big Pharma trustworthy, to at least some extent?
Now I cannot emphasize this strongly enough: what follows is not intended to imply a general conclusion about the trustworthiness of Big Pharma. It’s just a list of important factors to keep in mind when assessing the trustworthiness of a particular claim, by a particular company, on a particular issue.
1) Ethics. Don’t just think about the organizations; think about the people who work at them. They’re mostly people like you & me. Most of them got into the business to try to help people (and, yeah, to make a living). And most of them were raised by their parents to be decent, honest folks. Most people tell the truth about most things most of the time.
2) Regulation. The pharmaceutical industry is heavily regulated, subject to lots of laws regarding the efficacy and safety of their products, as well as regarding advertising. Criminal and civil sanctions are possible when pharma companies misbehave. Now, that’s not to say that the current level of regulation is sufficient, or that enforcement is adequate. But companies (and individuals) have been subject to serious sanctions. Companies generally want to stay out of court, and so they’ve got a reason — not always a sufficient reason, but a reason — to behave in a trustworthy manner.
3) Peer Review. In few other industries is fundamental information about what makes your product work (or not work) open to public scrutiny. In order for a new drug to receive approval to be marketed, it has to show itself to be safe and effective in clinical trials, and the results and methods of those trials have to be published in peer-reviewed medical journals. Drug companies are not allowed to make claims based on secret data. “Peer reviewed” means that the articles reporting on the trials have to be vetted by a panel of qualified experts if they are ever going to see the light of day. It’s an imperfect system (all systems relying on human judgment are) but bad science tends to get weeded out pretty quickly. Then, once a study is published, it’s there for assessment, and potentially criticism and rebuttal, by hundreds or thousands of other experts.
4) Scientific Overlap. You sometimes hear it implied that physician-researchers (the ones who do most clinical research, as well as doing all that peer reviewing mentioned above) have all been corrupted by corporate money. And it’s true that there really is cause for worry here. Too many docs get too much money (and other perks) from pharma, and are insufficiently transparent about that. So: it’s good to worry…up to a point. Here’s the problem with the pharma-controls-everything theory. Physician-researchers publish in scientific journals that are read not just by other physicians (some of whom don’t have industry funding), but also by biologists, chemists, epidemiologists, statisticians, and so on, most of whom have no corporate funding whatsoever. Further, modern science more generally is an enormously complex process for finding mistakes and exaggerations in each other’s research. And it helps that there’s significant overlap between the sciences, so no one group of scientists is ever truly isolated and free from scrutiny. Oversimplifying, you could say that biologists are double-checking the work done by the physicians, chemists are checking up on the biologists, and physicists are checking up on the chemists. (That’s why any physician who tries to use “quantum theory” in writing about disease had better be careful: there are armies of physicists waiting to explain just how irrelevant quantum mechanics is to human physiology.)
5) Competition. People often talk about Big Pharma as if it’s a monolith, one big organization, rather than a bunch of companies with divergent interests competing savagely with each other. That competition gives them every reason to attack each other’s weaknesses, and to point them out to the public. Add to that the fact that there are hundreds of smaller firms nipping at the heels of the big players. It’s far from a cozy conspiracy. This vicious competition of course means that there’s sometimes an incentive to cut corners in unscrupulous ways; but it also means that when you cut a corner, there’s always someone out there ready to point it out.
Now, again, this list is not supposed to lead to any particular conclusion about just how trustworthy Big Pharma is. It’s just a list of social and institutional mechanisms we need to take into consideration, in addition to the obvious bad track record and obvious financial incentives. Each of those mechanisms will apply to a greater or lesser degree with regard to specific situations. For particular issues, we need to think carefully both about what’s at stake, and about whether the above factors are likely to be sufficient to reassure us.
I’ve been getting (and rejecting) comments full of unsubstantiated, and in some cases very dangerous, claims on some topics related to the above. When it comes to matters of health, if you’re not going to cite reliable sources, I cannot take responsibility for allowing your comments on here. There’s too much at stake, in terms of public health.