Big Pharma conspiracy theory

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The Big Pharma conspiracy theory is a group of conspiracy theories that claim that the medical community in general and pharmaceutical companies in particular, especially large corporations, operate for sinister purposes and against the public good, and that they allegedly conceal effective treatments, or even cause and worsen a wide range of diseases.[1][2] Specific variations of the conspiracy theory have included the claim that natural alternative remedies to health problems are being suppressed, the claim that drugs for the treatment of HIV/AIDS are ineffective and harmful, and the claim that a cure for all cancers has been discovered but hidden from the public. In each case the conspiracy theorists have blamed pharmaceutical companies' search for profits. A range of authors have shown these claims to be false, though some of these authors nevertheless maintain that other criticisms of the pharmaceutical industry are legitimate.[3][4][5][6][7][8][9][10]

History and definition[edit]

The term Big Pharma is used to refer collectively to the global pharmaceutical industry. According to Steven Novella the term has come to connote a demonized form of the pharmaceutical industry.[5] Professor of writing Robert Blaskiewicz has written that conspiracy theorists use the term Big Pharma as "shorthand for an abstract entity comprising corporations, regulators, NGOs, politicians, and often physicians, all with a finger in the trillion-dollar prescription pharmaceutical pie".[1]

According to Blaskiewicz, the Big Pharma conspiracy theory has four classic traits: first, the assumption that the conspiracy is perpetrated by a small malevolent cadre; secondly, the belief that the public at large is ignorant of the truth; thirdly, that its believers treat lack of evidence as evidence; and finally, that the arguments deployed in support of the theory are irrational, misconceived, or otherwise mistaken.[1]


The conspiracy theory has a variety of different specific manifestations. Each has different narratives, but they always cast "Big Pharma" as the villain of the piece.[1]

Alternative treatments[edit]

In Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You to Know About, Kevin Trudeau proposes that there are all-natural cures for serious illnesses including cancer, herpes, arthritis, AIDS, acid reflux disease, various phobias, depression, obesity, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, lupus, chronic fatigue syndrome, attention deficit disorder, muscular dystrophy, and that these are all being deliberately hidden and suppressed from the public by the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, and the major food and drug companies.[11]


In a 2006 column for Harper's Magazine, journalist Celia Farber claimed that the antiretroviral drug nevirapine was part of a conspiracy by the "scientific-medical complex" to spread toxic drugs.[12] Farber said that AIDS is not caused by HIV and that nevirapine had been unethically administered to pregnant women in clinical trials, leading to a fatality.[12] Farber's theories and claims were refuted by scientists, but, according to Seth Kalichman, the resulting publicity represented a breakthrough moment for AIDS denialism.[13]

Hidden cancer cure[edit]

The idea that big pharma has a cure for cancer and is suppressing it so that they can maintain a profit is believed by as much as 27% of the American public according to a 2005 survey.[14] The argument is that pharmaceutical companies are slowing down research for a comprehensive cure for cancer by developing high-profit, single-purpose treatments rather than focusing on a supposed cure-all for all cancers.[15]


A common claim among proponents of the conspiracy theory is that pharmaceutical companies suppress negative research about their drugs by financially pressuring researchers and journals. Skeptic Benjamin Radford, while conceding there is "certainly a grain of truth" to these claims, notes that there are in fact papers critical of specific drugs published in top journals on a regular basis.[3] A prominent and recent example noted by Radford is a systematic review published in the British Medical Journal showing that paracetamol is ineffective for lower back pain and has minimal effectiveness for osteoarthritis.[3][16]

In his 2012 book Bad Pharma, Ben Goldacre heavily criticises the pharmaceutical industry but rejects any conspiracy theories. He argues that the problems are "perpetrated by ordinary people, but many of them may not even know what they've done."[4]

Steven Novella writes that while the pharmaceutical industry has a number of aspects which justly deserve criticism, the "demonization" of it is both cynical and intellectually lazy.[5] He goes on to consider that overblown attacks on "Big Pharma" actually let the pharmaceutical industry "off the hook" since they distract from and tarnish more considered criticisms.[5] He has also written, on Skepticblog, about the general misunderstanding and sensationalizing of cancer research that typically accompanies a conspiratorial mindset. He points out that cures for cancer, rather than being hidden, are not the cures they are initially touted to be by the media and either result in a dead end, further research goals, or a decrease in the mortality rate for a specific type of cancer.[6]

Dave Roos and Oliver Childs have criticized the idea that holding back a cure for cancer would result in more profit than presenting one.[7][8] Dina Fine Maron further notes that this view largely ignores the fact that cancer is not a single disease but instead many, and the fact that large strides have been made in the fight against cancer.[9]

In 2016 David Robert Grimes published a research paper elaborating about the mathematical non-viability of conspiracy theories in general.[10] He specifically showed that if there were a big pharma conspiracy to conceal a cure for cancer, it would be exposed after about 3.2 years due to the sheer number of people required to keep it secret.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Blaskiewicz, Robert (2013). "The Big Pharma conspiracy theory". Medical Writing. 22 (4): 259. doi:10.1179/2047480613Z.000000000142.
  2. ^ Dunning, Brian (September 19, 2017). "Skeptoid #589: The Big Pharma Conspiracy". Skeptoid. Retrieved 25 June 2018.
  3. ^ a b c Radford, Benjamin. "Big Pharma Conspiracy Debunked". Retrieved 21 June 2018.
  4. ^ a b Goldacre, Ben (2008). "Foreword". Bad Pharma. Fourth Estate. ISBN 978-0-00-735074-2.
  5. ^ a b c d Novella, Steven (22 April 2010). "Demonizing 'Big Pharma'". Science-Based Medicine.
  6. ^ a b Novella, Steven. "ANOTHER CURE FOR CANCER?". Retrieved 25 June 2018.
  7. ^ a b Roos, Dave. "Is There a Hidden Cure for Cancer?". Retrieved 21 June 2018.
  8. ^ a b Childs, Oliver (24 March 2014). "Don't believe the hype – 10 persistent cancer myths debunked". Cancer Research UK. Retrieved 27 April 2019.
  9. ^ a b Maron, Dina Fine. "Can We Truly "Cure" Cancer?". Retrieved 21 June 2018.
  10. ^ a b Grimes, David Robert (26 January 2016). Bauch, Chris T. (ed.). "On the Viability of Conspiratorial Beliefs". PLOS ONE. Public Library of Science (PLoS). 11 (1): e0147905. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0147905. ISSN 1932-6203. PMC 4728076. PMID 26812482.
  11. ^ Michael Shermer, "Cures and Cons: Natural scams "he" doesn't want you to know about," Scientific American, March 2006.
  12. ^ a b Schaffer, A. (2006). "Drug trials and error: conspiracy theories about big pharma would amuse, if they were not a matter of life and death". MIT Technology Review. 109 (2): 70, May 1. (subscription required)
  13. ^ Nattrass, N.; Kalichman, S. (2009). Denying AIDS: conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and human tragedy. Springer. p. 183. ISBN 9780387794754.
  14. ^ Gansler, Ted; Henley, S. Jane; Stein, Kevin; Nehl, Eric J.; Smigal, Carol; Slaughter, Edwin (2005). "Sociodemographic determinants of cancer treatment health literacy". Cancer. Wiley. 104 (3): 653–660. doi:10.1002/cncr.21194. ISSN 0008-543X.
  15. ^ Bernstein, Jake. "How Big Pharma Holds Back in the War on Cancer". Retrieved 21 June 2018.
  16. ^ Machado, G. C.; Maher, C. G.; Ferreira, P. H.; Pinheiro, M. B.; Lin, C.-W. C.; Day, R. O.; McLachlan, A. J.; Ferreira, M. L. (31 March 2015). "Efficacy and safety of paracetamol for spinal pain and osteoarthritis: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised placebo controlled trials". BMJ. BMJ. 350 (mar31 2): h1225–h1225. doi:10.1136/bmj.h1225. ISSN 1756-1833. PMC 4381278. PMID 25828856.
  17. ^ Berezow, Alex. "Maths study shows conspiracies 'prone to unravelling'". BBC. Science and Environment. Retrieved 25 June 2018.