The average price of pharmaceutical drugs has increased by 500% since the 1980s

Pharmaceutical drugs have been revolutionary in modern society, saving or extending the lives of billions of people around the world. They have lengthened the average life expectancy in developed countries to over 70 years of age (an increase of 20-30 years) over the past century. However, this gift to humanity has not come without its share of issues. The average price of pharmaceutical drugs has increased by 500% since the 1980s, a rate that is three times greater than increases in prices due to inflation in the same time period. Additionally, thousands of drug are recalled each year due to safety or efficacy concerns, indicating that faulty products are regularly being approved for public consumption. The culprit of these issues lies no further than the entity creating these products: the pharmaceutical industry.

Pharmaceutical companies, colloquially known as “Big Pharma”, have been known to increase prices of their drugs drastically and unreasonably (a practice known as “price gouging”) to widen their profit margins, resulting in their inaccessibility to many who depend on them. A recent example of this is the ongoing fiasco concerning insulin prices in the United States (US). Insulin is a daily medication required by people with diabetes to control their blood glucose levels. Shockingly, a vial of insulin in the US in 2018 costed six times more than it did in 2000 and was almost five times more expensive than the nearest country’s average price. Pharmaceutical companies, like Eli Lilly, have recently come under public scrutiny for these unfair drug prices. As a response to this public outrage, Eli Lilly announced price cuts to insulin of up to 70% in March 2023, a long overdue discount that should help Americans afford their medication. Nevertheless, price gouging still exists for countless drugs driven by a desire to increase earnings rather than care for patient’s health.

Perhaps more egregious than overpriced drugs are how pharmaceutical companies can slip ineffective or harmful products past regulations. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a rigorous process to approve drugs, which involves ensuring the product is effective and not overtly harmful throughout the preclinical and clinical stages of drug development. However, in the clinical stage  results from manufacturer sponsored trials have historically been biased by either downplaying adverse reactions or overstating therapeutic responses. This misreporting of safety and efficacy makes it easier for a drug to receive FDA approval, allowing for companies to quickly recoup research and development costs at the detriment of consumers. It’s no wonder most lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies have revolved around their drugs being less effective or more dangerous than advertised, leading to unintended side effects or even death of patients.

The largest US pharmaceutical lawsuit was a case against GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in 2012. GSK was found guilty of marketing 10 drugs for non-FDA approved uses, compensating doctors for prescribing these products, and understating side effects of their type 2 diabetes drug, Avandia. This antidiabetic currently holds a boxed warning, indicating dangerous side effects, due to its high risk for those who have heart disease – information that was withheld from consumers initially. GSK was forced to pay $3 billion in total settlements for their fraudulent business and research practices.

Despite the negative reputation Big Pharma has garnered, the industry remains incredibly necessary for its contribution to modern healthcare. Big Pharma should be seen as a saving grace with the products they provide; instead, many see them as uncaring and corrupt. Strategies to improve sentiment and integrity in the industry could include creating better legislation on fair drug pricing, increasing external scientific review and regulation over drug development, and separating research funding companies from drug testing to reduce bias. Reaching this point may be difficult, but will be an important shift back to the core purpose of the industry: to make people’s lives healthier and better.

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