- /Theresa Thai
26 April 2017
An Overview of the Pharmaceutical Industry: Morality, Ethics, and Corruption
Pharmacy has been dated back to the “cradles of civilization,” in which documented records of ancient Sumerian and Chinese natives practiced prescribing and dispensing medicinal plants. Some 1300 years later, the first pharmacy was opened by Arabs in the Islamic golden city of Baghdad. The new discoveries of the pharmaceutical art became a fascinating phenomenon that scholars all over the world would study for hundreds of years. The concept of drugs and medicinal cures was extensively studied in European countries, and finally made its way to the Americas. In time, pharmacies would be founded in the United States and World War 1 would propel the pharmaceutical industry into its Golden Era.
The pharmaceutical industry has come a long way in the last 120 years. It is as if pharmaceutical companies hold the key of life for people around the world. Cures to cancer, vaccines that prevent malicious diseases, and antibiotics that fight the deadliest forms of bacteria have all been procreated in this brief amount of time. These breakthroughs in the health realm of society have significantly benefitted people – lifetimes have been elongated by almost 40 percent and sickness has transitioned into a battle rather than an immediate guaranteed defeat. However, there is more to the pharmaceutical industry than what meets the eye.
The mission statements of pharmaceutical companies like Mylan promote the same mundane goal: “We put people and patients first, trusting that profits will follow. We call this philosophy Doing Good and Doing Well. It reflects our belief that Mylan is not just a company, we’re a cause. Today we express that cause by delivering better health for a better world.” They claim to be the Robin Hood of the health industry, putting people’s health needs before profit. Nonetheless, recently, Mylan was put on the spotlight for a recent Epi-Pen scandal. The Epi-Pen is a life-saving auto-injection device that counteracts allergic reactions by injecting epinephrine into the body. The drug is commonly used amongst numerous children who suffer from allergies such as peanuts but unknowingly consume them anyways. In the last year, Mylan hiked the price of the lifesaving pen over 500% in the last eight years – in 2008, the drug costed 165 dollars per pack; last year, the allergenic device had a retail price of 608 dollars (Figure 1).
The most shocking part: the Epi-Pen delivers just a little over one dollar of epinephrine to the body. Mylan CEO, Heather Bresch, justified that the price increase was necessary to make small improvements on the product. These minimal ‘improvements’ have made it nearly impossible for some patients to afford the drug. A few patients have claimed that the affordability was so exorbitant that they decided not to purchase the Epi-Pen at all. A woman, who suffers a deadly pollen allergy, exclaimed that she could not afford the drug, and would instead take the risk of suffering from an allergic reaction because she had no other option. Simultaneously, as consumers suffered, Bresch reaped an astonishing 671% salary increase. The scandal screamed unethical profit maximization. This is a recurring and pressing issue that berates the pretentious pharmaceutical industry. Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, articulated, “It’s like being held hostage. [Pharmaceutical companies] create life-saving drugs, but, because of their greed, people can’t afford them. What good is a life-saving drug if you can’t get it?” Unethical overpricing of products is one of the dangers of the pharmaceutical industry that has been pervasively popularized to this day – and is difficult to stop with the implementation of the United States free market system.
Today, companies have managed to convince the general public that there is a drug for anything pain related. Whether one is suffering from a headache, a minor cut, or lower lumbar pain, there was a drug-related fix. On the other hand, they have masterfully managed to convince some medical professionals to sell their product and write unnecessary drug prescriptions to their patients, defying the Hippocratic Oath. Doctors were even recruited by drug companies to “speak” at teaching hospitals and pharmaceutical events and were paid to praise and spread the word of the wonderful products that were procreated. In return, the pharmaceutical companies have friendlily offered generous gifts ranging from drug company souvenirs to expensive sporting events to free samples of a specific drug. To cover up the corruption of bribery within the pharmaceutical industry, companies expressed their paid relationship with medical professionals as a benefit to health care providers and the general public. However, it is irregular for drug companies to be so generous if their investments did not produce enormous net returns. The bribery, unethical and unpleasing to patients, indicated that there is corruption and immorality within the pharmaceutical industry. Prior to 2002, the cozy relationship in which pharmaceutical companies used money and ‘donations’ to influence doctors was not uncommon. It was the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America lobbying group that severed the strings of this reciprocating practice. The real question is: If we cannot trust the pharmaceutical industry and our own medical professionals because of corruption, who can we trust to place our health in the hands of?
It is no surprise that the pharmaceutical industry has major influence in the governmental drug regulation and acts of legislation. According to Peter S. Schonofer, “drug companies spend some 100 million US dollars annually to influence politicians who regulate drug protocols.” In addition, the pharmaceutical industry employs a ludicrous number of lobbyists in Washington to support their unethical causes – 625 lobbyists are currently employed by these cash fat companies, which is more people than there are Congressmen. These acts of bribery and corruption allow pharmaceutical companies to get around manufacturing regulations, overprice drugs with no price cap, and get away with serious scandals. One scandal centered around the company, Johnson and Johnson, in which the company unethically persuaded some US government health officials to prescribe the drug, risperidone, to patients in hospitals and prisons even though it was unnecessary. With the political power held within the hands of the pharmaceutical industry, corruption and bribery could run wild without the public’s knowledge. Transparency International, a group that watches and reports corruption, articulated, “Pharmaceutical companies can unduly influence national political systems through their large spending power. They often fund candidates that support their position on key issues.” For example, with the help of their cash flow, the drug industry has already succeeded in disemboweling Senate Bill 1010, in which the pharmaceutical companies would have had to explain why a drug price increased if there was an increase and reveal how much the company paid to have the medicine produced. With the demolition of the bill, pharmaceutical companies could hide general information from the public and reap the rewards of millions of patients who require certain medication. Today, the pharmaceutical industry has combined their powers to work towards defeating the California Drug Price Relief Act, which forces the companies to sell the drug at a reasonable price (the price that the US Department of Veterans Affairs pays for).
Clearly, an abundance immorality and corruption lies within the pharmaceutical industry – most of which is blind to the United States citizens and taxpayers. The pharmaceutical industry has managed to influence the government, our health care professionals, and have used their wealth towards their own profit. The system has worked itself out so that the few people that own large parts of the pharmaceutical business make millions while hundreds of people suffer as they are in dire need of medication but can no longer afford it. In other words, the industry preys on the sick and poor. Some of the extensive efforts to expose the pharmaceutical companies have been successful – such as the scandalous exploitation of the companies Turing Industries and Mylan Generics. So far, it seems that the industry has worked in bits and pieces to change the current landscape of corruption. However, the industry is far from adopting and employing their mission statements of health social responsibility as long as social, political, and economic power can be manipulated by using money.
I’m a freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Boston University. My work has been featured in publications like the L.A. Times, U.S. News and World Report, Farther Finance, Teen Vogue, Grammarly, The Startup, Mashable, Insider, Forbes, Writer (formerly Qordoba), MarketWatch, CNBC, and USA Today, among others.