Controversies Surrounding the Pharmaceutical Industry

The pharmaceutical industry has been entwined with perverse incentives throughout history.

Predatory Practices

Predatory Pharmaceutical Trials

During the 1950s, Gregory Pincus targeted poor women in Puerto Rico for testing of oral contraceptives.1)

Pfizer stands accused of experimenting on orphan babies to test its COVID-19 vaccines.2)

Farming Humans for Products

Factor 8

The Arkansas Prison Blood Scandal. The Factor 8 case study is much broader and deeper than what happened in Arkansas, and this section will be expanded over time.

Pharmaceutical Dependence

Addiction as a Business Model

Dependence as a Business Model

Unnecessary Antidepressants

Dangerous Medication

Swine Flu Vaccines, 1976

“Safe and effective” vaccines rolled out against swine flu in 1976 that subsequently turn out to be damaging to several hundred people, particularly with neurological disorders such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.3). The eerie similarities are hard to ignore.4)


John Abramson talks to Joe Rogan about his investigation into the fraudulent trial data provided by Merck to help sell Vioxx, and anti-inflammatory. The drug was eventually withdrawn after it had been on the market for four and a half years. In that time, it killed between 50,000 and 60,000 Americans. A subsequent class action suit, with 27,000 plaintiffs, resulted in damages being paid of $4.7 billion, and a further fine of circa $1 billion. Since the company sold over $12 billion worth of Vioxx, the lethal venture was still profitable for them. No one went to jail.

Intellectual Property

All of the potential critiques of intellectual property

History of Patent Medicine

Regulatory Capture

Regulatory capture is the process by which the entities being regulated by society's chosen regulatory structures take control of those structures. If done stealthily, this results in fooling society into a broad sense of safety while giving immense power to those doing the capturing. The pharmaceutical industry devotes a greater proportion of its budget to lobbying and marketing, which seems to have resulted in greater levels of regulatory capture than with most industries.

In May, 2019, The Roosevelt Institute published a piece called 'The Cost of Capture: How the Pharmaceutical Industry Has Corrupted Policymakers and Harmed Patients' that “explore(s) how drug companies influence policymakers and what this means for patients, the American health care system, and our economy. One of a series on Big Pharma, this issue brief defines “corporate capture,” or a form of corruption in which industry exerts undue influence over policymakers in regulatory and legislative bodies, often at the expense of the public interest or in contravention of democratic will.”5)

Revolving Door

Predatory Advertising Spending

The pharmaceutical industry spends enormous amounts of money on advertising, paying for the lights to stay on at media outlets that would otherwise be counted on to inform the public about the state of the industry.

  • Sample of Pfizer sponsorships of major media organizations.6)

Warnings of Regulatory Capture

Many doctors, academics, and leaders have spoke out about pharmaceutical industry manipulation of government agencies, including those designed to police it.

  • Former NEJM Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Marcia Angell discusses the endemic corruption in the pharmaceutical industry.7)

Scientific Capture

Rigged Research

Study 329

“In the early 2000s, based on Study 329, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) marketed Paxil (paroxetine) as safe and effective for children and adolescents when company executives were aware that a number of studies (all but Study 329 unpublished) had shown that the drug was no better than placebo and caused thought disturbance and suicidal behavior in some youngsters.”8)

Undue industry influences that distort healthcare research, strategy, expenditure and practice: a review

Scope and impact of financial conflicts of interest in biomedical research: a systematic review

Uneasy alliance - clinical investigators and the pharmaceutical industry

Sponsorship, Authorship, and Accountability

Financial ties of principal investigators and randomized controlled trial outcomes: cross sectional study

Medical Provider Capture

Open Payments

Open Payments houses a publicly accessible database of payments that reporting entities, including drug and medical device companies, make to covered recipients like physicians, nurses and other healthcare providers. In 2020, Pfizer paid out over $738MM to hospitals and healthcare providers.

Terrorism Funding Claims

In January, 2022, a U.S. appeals court revived a lawsuit against several pharmaceutical companies including Pfizer and AstraZeneca over allegations of contracts in Iraq that funded terrorism that resulted in the deaths of Americans during the Iraq War.9)10)

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