The pharmaceutical industry is one of the big two industries engineering students hope to get into when they’re done with their degree. The other, of course, is the oil and gas industry. But since we have slagged off the latter before on a few occasions (particularly in Green Is Good), it’s time now for the former to receive some personal love.
Previously this week, we have talked about how there are certain conspiracy theories circulating around Big Pharma, with many of these insinuating sinister undertones. Pharmaceutical companies, according to these theories, hold back real cures for deadly diseases as treating patients suffering from them would be more economically beneficial. Analyzing the rationalization of those purporting these theories, we, quite successfully, proved the inadequacies inherent to it while also providing examples countering the intermediate assumptions supporting them (especially the proof of the economic soundness of finding cures). The reader is highly recommended to read this particular article, titled ‘Big Phar-merci?’.
Using that as a starting point, we can see, though shrouded in unsubstantiated sinister theories, the pharmaceutical industry is mired in unethical conduct. One of the most popular examples of this is the marking-up of essential drug prices. Martin Shkreli comes to mind with the overpricing of the HIV treating drug Daraprim by 5500% by Turing Pharmaceuticals during his tenure as the Chief Executive Officer. However, this is only one of the darker aspects of Big Pharma, and even that, a relatively minor one. In this article, we will be looking at some of the other, more insidious aspects of the pharmaceutical industry.
Firstly, we must understand that the usage of chemicals in commercial products has to be backed up by scientific papers discussing their efficacy in their respective fields. This is especially true for consumables and those that are administered directly onto or into the human body as the health and safety consideration for these chemicals are much more stringent than any other. Due to this, any new drug has to pass through a tremendous barrage of tests and research, from lab scale, to controlled human administration. The hoops through which a pharmaceutical company has to jump through to make their products viable are impressively selective to only the best products.
It is at this juncture that established conglomerates try to increase the likelihood of their products being coloured in a better light and tamper with clinical trials. This manifests mainly in industry-funded research. It was reported in New Scientist that research funded by drug companies usually turn out biased results as compared to independent ones. This might not sound all that surprising, nor is it a phenomenon exclusive to the pharmaceutical industry. Big Tobacco had similarly undertaken legitimizing campaigns since the 40s, taking advantage of the public’s ignorance of health effects of smoking to sell them the idea of smoking being healthy (especially with the addition of menthol which introduced a cooling sensation with every inhalation).
However, research into drugs is extremely complicated, what with the existence of patents protecting the closely-guarded recipes needed to produce the specific drugs to be tested. The only way to test these drugs would be through research approved by the patent-holders. All that we know of the efficacy of a certain type of drug is what is told to us by the very companies that try to sell them. Is it any wonder that there are so many conspiracy theories surrounding them? And when proof emerges of industrial meddling in scientific research by some irresponsible companies, the public rises in uproar, disgusted by the appalling nature of the crime, only to swiftly forget about these transgressions as soon as out-of-court settlements are reached.
For example, it would be surprising if anyone remembers back in 2012 when Pharma giants GlaxoSmithKline pleaded guilty to criminal charges and agreed to a $ 3 billion settlement, the largest payment by a drug company. The case was due to the company’s promotion of prescription drugs (an illegal act), promotion of drugs for uses they weren’t licensed for, failing to report safety data and bribing doctors. Similar instances pepper history, each with its own dark undertakings by large conglomerates.
With all of these liberties afforded to pharmaceutical companies, how can the public be reassured that any drug does what it says on the label? Peer review and clinical trials are very rigorous. When it comes to making sure people will not be too negatively affected, government regulation and enforcement is often compelled by the public to be as thorough as possible. And they are, with government sanctions being heavy and restrictive, so much so that many corporate figures lash out against the offensive red-tape they have to manoeuvre to get any worthwhile work done. However, due to restrictive bureaucracy (and not an insignificant amount of lobbying), governmental intervention is not always too effective. This, coupled with large monopolies in place with companies who own certain brands of drugs that are so trusted by society, the public’s interest with any other brand is negligible as best.
So where does that leave us? As engineering students aspiring to go into the ‘real world’, fending for ourselves against the ravages of time and reality, it is tempting to leave out ethics and philosophy for basic practicality. However, as YME Insider has pointed out time and again, responsibility should be as much a part of an engineer’s concern as much as innovative engineering is. In fact, social responsibility should be every person’s concern, but it is often left to activists, politicians and lawyers.
We as science practitioners and advocates should be aware of the effects of what we do and why we do it. Awareness of capitalistic market forces versus socialist regulation, the spread of wealth amongst the masses, drug pricing, work opportunities for locals and the effect of machination all should be taken into consideration when planning out our lives. This is probably not all that possible when it comes to the beginning of our careers, though those of us who are capable of doing so may be more selective with the choice of companies we apply to, favouring those with proven track records of ethical practice. However, we may all do our part by educating each other of the various issues plaguing society and reiterate our responsibility to speak out against it. And if we keep doing that, we may form a significant pressure group that may positively influence corporations and governments to form a much fairer world for us all.
Don’t get me wrong, oil and gas and pharmaceuticals are very important industries. The world will not function nearly as well without them. But being blackmailed into accepting their underhanded tactics as a fair payment for all the good they do for the world is unacceptable. At least for me, I can’t live with screwing over innocent people just to make easier money.