Page semi-protected

Big Pharma conspiracy theories

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Big Pharma conspiracy theory)
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Big Pharma conspiracy theories are conspiracy theories which claim that the medical community in general and pharmaceutical companies in particular, especially large corporations, operate for sinister purposes and against the public good, that they conceal effective treatments, or even cause and worsen a wide range of diseases for the purpose of profitability, or for other nefarious reasons.[1][2] Some theories 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, the claim that a cure for all cancers has been discovered but hidden from the public, claims that COVID-19 vaccines are ineffective, and that alternative cures are available for COVID-19. 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]

History and definition

According to Steven Novella the term Big Pharma 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 cabal; 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]

In the 1970s and 1980s, the conspiracy theory was promoted by Ann Wigmore who held that diseases, including cancer and HIV/AIDS, could be effectively treated with a raw food diet. In this context, Wigmore believed that the pharmaceutical industry was part of a conspiracy to keep the population at large ill.[10]

André Picard wrote in 2009 that the internet had radically changed the nature of popular scientific discourse from being infrequent and deferential to widespread and conspiracy based: scientific debate was often supplanted by dismissal of science as being "part of some vast conspiracy". In the conspiracist world view, "Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, pharmacologists, biochemists, immunologists, geneticists and journalists are not to be trusted. They are all on the take".[11]

Research in Italy in 2016 found that nearly half the adult population subscribed to a Big Pharma conspiracy theory (that pharmaceutical companies were hiding a cure for neurodegenerative diseases), but that such beliefs were negatively correlated to mainstream religion while having anti-science and anti-elitism bases.[2]


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]

In Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You to Know About, Kevin Trudeau claims 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 major food and drug companies.[12]

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.[13] 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.[13] Farber's theories and claims were refuted by scientists, but, according to Seth Kalichman, the resulting publicity represented a breakthrough moment for AIDS denialism.[14]

The idea that big pharma has a cure for cancer and is suppressing it so that they can maintain a profit was believed by as much as 27% of the American public according to a 2005 survey.[15] 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.[16]


During the COVID-19 pandemic, former research scientist Judy Mikovits spread the notion that "Big Pharma", Bill Gates and the World Health Organization led a conspiracy, in which they acted together as a "circular cabal" with the aim of killing Americans.[17]


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 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][18]

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.[19] He estimated 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.[20]

In 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a surge of new conspiracies about the origins of the disease, such as claiming that the virus was created in a laboratory. However, strong evidence suggests that the disease-causing virus, SARS-CoV-2, is a naturally evolved strain belonging to the coronavirus subfamily.[21][22]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Blaskiewicz, Robert (2013). "The Big Pharma conspiracy theory". Medical Writing. 22 (4): 259. doi:10.1179/2047480613Z.000000000142.
  2. ^ a b Ladini R (12 May 2021). "Religious and conspiracist? An analysis of the relationship between the dimensions of individual religiosity and belief in a big pharma conspiracy theory". Italian Political Science Review/Rivista Italiana di Scienza Politica. 52 (1): 33–50. doi:10.1017/ipo.2021.15. eISSN 2057-4908. ISSN 0048-8402.
  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. ^ Kale S (11 November 2021). "Chakras, crystals and conspiracy theories: how the wellness industry turned its back on Covid science". The Guardian.
  11. ^ Picard A (5 March 2009). "Bloggers, there's no Big Pharma conspiracy". Globe & Mail (Toronto, Canada).
  12. ^ Michael Shermer, "Cures and Cons: Natural scams "he" doesn't want you to know about," Scientific American, March 2006.
  13. ^ 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)
  14. ^ Nattrass, N.; Kalichman, S. (2009). Denying AIDS: conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and human tragedy. Springer. p. 183. ISBN 9780387794754.
  15. ^ 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. PMID 15983986.
  16. ^ Bernstein, Jake. "How Big Pharma Holds Back in the War on Cancer". Retrieved 21 June 2018.
  17. ^ McGreal C (14 May 2020). "A disgraced scientist and a viral video: how a Covid conspiracy theory started". The Guardian.
  18. ^ 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. 350 (mar31 2): h1225. doi:10.1136/bmj.h1225. ISSN 1756-1833. PMC 4381278. PMID 25828856.
  19. ^ 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. Bibcode:2016PLoSO..1147905G. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0147905. ISSN 1932-6203. PMC 4728076. PMID 26812482.
  20. ^ Berezow, Alex. "Maths study shows conspiracies 'prone to unravelling'". BBC. Science and Environment. Retrieved 25 June 2018.
  21. ^ "COVID: Top 10 current conspiracy theories". Alliance for Science. Retrieved 2021-07-25.
  22. ^ "Covid: WHO says 'extremely unlikely' virus leaked from lab in China". BBC News. 2021-02-09. Retrieved 2021-07-25.

Further reading