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Debunking the Conspiracy Theory that Drug Companies Keep Us Sick

I’ve never been a proponent of conspiracy theories in general. They play out well in movie and television dramas, where the hero has uncovered a renegade government plot to dupe or destroy the beloved institutions and suffering innocent citizens of America. It’s an intriguing fiction aptly supported with rock-solid evidence, but it doesn’t translate well into real life, for the simple reason that there doesn’t seem to be one group of American business or political power-mongers that could ever all agree on and smoothly execute a radical and gargantuan plot.

But maybe Big Pharma is an entirely different animal and our growing reliance on medication is the result of a more complex web of misdirection. Natasha Deonarain, MD, MBA, argues that drug companies medicate us for mostly preventable diseases and cites cancer treatment as the biggest waste of spending, claiming that obesity and lack of exercise cause most cancers. Health care dollars, she concludes, should be spent on aggressive programs that promote better lifestyles that include healthy eating and activity, thereby preventing cancer. Researchers that raise the hope that cancer can be cured are, according to Deonarain, spreading “…a wonderful lie that tugs at our hearts, opens our purses and perpetuates our reliance on drugs instead of funneling billions into the provision of health practices and education first.” Although her assessment of how we can avoid disease simply by eating better and being more active is rather reductive, her claim that health insurance and health providers are inadequate in covering and promoting preventative programs has some validity.

In an Atlantic 2012 article, John-Manuel Andriote attacks drug companies’ direct-to-consumer marketing via television commercials as collusion between drug manufacturers, doctors and insurers to convince healthy people that they are ill and slightly sick people that they are even sicker. One technique used to accomplish this, Andriote writes, is to change the metrics for diagnosing disease. For example, the numbers for diagnosing hypertension has dropped. What used to be considered a normal BP—120/80—is now called pre-hypertension, which motivates doctors to prescribe hypertension drugs to essentially healthy patients who don’t really need them.  While Andriote makes some very strong points, the argument felt simplistic and limited, and made me think first of multiple sclerosis. When I developed the disease back in 1999 but was given no diagnosis, I could only start taking a DMD after getting a diagnosis—which occurred six years later. But now, patients diagnosed with CIS, who show all the signs of MS but have had only one attack, can start a DMD. That change was made based on the fact that drug intervention works best to delay progression in the early stages of the disease. It is hard for me to believe that this was just a ploy to get more people on these very expensive drugs.

David Shaywitz, MD, PhD, offers an entirely different take on why drug companies offer mostly incremental therapies and very few cures. Shaywitz writes: “The unfortunate truth is that drug companies really want to cure disease, but rarely know how. Medical science simply isn’t up to the challenge. Most diseases aren’t well enough understood to enable the rational development of truly transformative treatments.” He goes on to explain that when Phase III trials fail, as they did in a recent one for Alzheimer’s disease, they are characterized as a failure and a waste of research money. And though that may be true, the failure lay in not knowing enough about the disease pathophysiology.

Shaywitz also won’t dismiss the value of incremental therapies. Two examples I can think of would be Biogen coming up with the Avonex pen and Teva developing a version of Copaxone that can be injected only three days a week instead of daily. Although they aren’t revolutionary advances, we have all read positive patient testimonials on health forums claiming this new tweak made disease management a little easier for them.

Conspiracy theorists often claim that drug companies would lose money if they developed a cure for diseases. That scenario doesn’t at all translate into reality. A cure would have enormous value and Big Pharma would make plenty from it. What’s more, a cure is not a preventative. New cases would develop and that drug would be in constant demand. Big Pharma would be just as wealthy in such a scenario. And even if a company developed a cure and a vaccine to prevent new cases, that’s just one disease among thousands.

Whether you wax cynical about drug companies or feel that you mostly benefit from its therapies, there will always be an unease concerning our growing reliance on prescription drugs. As MS patients, we must continue to weigh the risks and benefits of our medications and make informed decisions as best we can.

To read more about the views quoted in this article, see the reference section below.1-3

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. What's Holding Back Cures? Our Collective Ignorance (And No, Not a Pharma Conspiracy), by David Shaywitz, MD, PhD, Forbes, May 10, 2013.
  2. How America’s Healthcare system Will Keep You Sick, by Natasha Deonarain, MD, MBA , KevinMD, October 7, 2012.
  3. Legal Drug-Pushing: How Disease Mongers Keep Us All Doped Up, by John-Manuel Andriote, The Atlantic, April 3, 2012.


  • gmc
    3 years ago

    I was so upset that I felt I needed to reply. AnneWallace makes most of the points I was going to mention, but I’ll add a few more.

    The correlation between vitamin D low levels and MS is basically ignored.

    The idea that a vaccination would produce as much revenue as a DMD is ludicrous. The vaccine would have to cost $60,000+ and that wouldn’t be repeated annually as DMDs are taken for a lifetime for most people.

    I agree that better diets and exercise would prevent many diseases, but MS is an auto-immune disorder. If only diet and exercise could be curative; MS would probably disappear. Mentioning lifestyle choices here seems mean to me. Even better would be if the food industry would quit adding sugar and MSG to almost everything. Oh wait, did that sound like a conspiracy theorist?

  • Duderock67
    3 years ago

    But autoimmune is only an unproven theory. Goggle history of autoimmune theory and you’ll see it only came about because scientists of the day were attempting to cure the common cold . Having found no cure they decided It was “autoimmune”.

  • AnneWallace
    3 years ago

    The cost of drugs, whether for MS or any other disease, is scandalous. Only one other country (I think it’s Nigeria) allows direct consumer advertising for prescription drugs. One only needs to watch an hour of television to be inundated with these ads. My first drug was Copaxone, then came an endless and ridiculous array of promotional materials mailed directly to me. This stuff, like commercials, costs A LOT OF MONEY. Add in CEO pay (Epi-pen CEO at $14,000,000 and a private jet) and you start to get a clearer understanding. The patent on Copaxone was about to expire…low and behold…they’ve got something new! Pardon my suspicions…do you really accept that? Apparently its the same drug, same dosage, but by some miracle now you only inject 3 times a week, no longer 7. AND IT COSTS MORE? Spare me. I was covered with hot, swollen, itchy welts at every injection site but hung in there for 9 months. Finally, my loss of sleep made me stop.

    There is a solution to all of this. Just as cigarettes can no longer be advertised, so should prescription drugs. The same authority that banned the Marlboro Man should be able to do this. Yes, there is an argument to be made
    that these ads provide valuable public information, but it could easily be replaced by an FDA website that provided information about any drug for any disease as well as clinical trials being performed. Once these ridiculous ads are eliminated (print as well) the costs will go down. Add to that some sanity in executive compensation and we’ll find ourselves in a far better place.

  • Duderock67
    3 years ago

    If that’s really what you believe than why don’t you ask the pharmaceutical companies to donate a substantial amount of profits to finding cures. I’ve done this on my own and get no response. Maybe you’ll have better luck.

  • Duderock67
    3 years ago

    Kim Dolce what I’m saying is that entities who are searching for cures, or at least better treatment options Tisch research centers, have begged for funding and been turned down because pig pharma and the ms society’s disregard any other treatments that have shown promise. This information is readily available. I’m just pointing out what is painfully obvious. However, I’m pretty good at agreeing to disagree.

  • Kim Dolce moderator author
    3 years ago


    Consider the bigger picture where medical costs are concerned. The cost of healthcare increases exponentially across all sub-fields every year, not just drugs. Although healthcare is subject to regulation, those regulations are complex and stake government and private concerns against one another. At best those regs are uncoordinated, overlooked, and talking past each other. A good example would be that PwMS who have Medicare are not qualified for pharma companies’ patient assistance programs. That exclusion was made because of the anti-kickback provision of the Social Security Act on government-assisted health plans. There is a petition circulating right now in favor of removing that restriction from Medicare/Medicaid programs.

    I am alarmed at your suggestion that socialism and the poor who get a full copay subsidy are somehow to blame. Pharma companies raise prices because they can in a lightly-regulated free market economy–and do so without consequences.

    If there is an entity to blame, we could target the concept of managed care which took over the industry in the 1980s. The idea was to cut healthcare costs by making it for-profit. Instead, costs increased and continue to do so.

    To read more about the complexity of healthcare regulations, see this link:

  • Kim Dolce moderator author
    3 years ago

    Duderock67, I might have misunderstood your point, but my first thought was that if pharma companies did as you suggest, why would you not suspect a conspiracy in that instance? Wouldn’t that make the research organization receiving big pharma money participants in collusion, or at least susceptible to it? What if independent researchers fail to find a cure after all that funding? What would be your take on that outcome?

  • itasara
    3 years ago

    I don’t know that drug companies want to prevent a cure, but what I do know is there are a lot of politics and costs involved that make me wonder if drug companies really care about patients and I’d really like to know where all the income they get goes. The change in Copaxone to 3x/week was initially refused to me (for bogus reasons) by my insurance co. Eventually with in a few months it was approved but at a cost insurance pays for the deal they made at a much higher amount than the previous 7x/wk even though the amount of medication/week is 20mg less ( and the formula hadn’t chanced,) and the number of syringes/month is quite a bit less. I just don’t understand that. So it isn’t just about amounts and supplies. Is it about socialism or helping those who don’t have to pay big copays? Is it really going to research or is it going to all the middlepeople who distribute the drug. $7500 a year (plus) OOP is a lot of money for one individual to pay.

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