Big pharma and health care: unsolvable conflict of interests between private enterprise and public health

Isr J Psychiatry Relat Sci. 2008;45(2):83-9; discussion 90-4.


A landmark paper on Game Theory showed that individual maximization of profit necessarily endangers the public good, and since the problem has no technical solution, "it requires a fundamental extension in morality" (1). We propose here that public health, as a public good, now emerges as a grave example of this problem. Recent events and reports increasingly suggest misalignment between the interests of the pharmaceutical industry and those of public health. Johnson & Johnson illegally and effectively promoted Propulsid off-label for children despite internal company documents raising safety concerns. Death in drug trial has been described as a "trade secret." On Vioxx, Topol wrote: "Sadly, it is clear that Merck's commercial interest exceeded its concern about the drug's toxicity" (2). More and more concerns are raised by scholars and major journal editors about the type and the quality of published evidence, often biased towards efficacy of new products. The industry, funding over 80% of trials, sets up a research agenda guided more by marketing than by clinical considerations. Smart statistical and epidemiological tactics help obtain the desired results. Budget for marketing is by far greater than for research. Massive advertising to physicians and to the public gets increasingly sophisticated: ghost writing, professional guidelines, targeting of consumer groups and manipulating media for disease mongering. Pervasive lobbying and political ties limit the independence of regulatory bodies. Obligation to shareholders overriding public health considerations is not unique to the pharmaceutical industry. The chemical, tobacco and food industries share similar tactics: proclaiming doubts about safety issues, buying researchers, infiltrating universities, boards, media and legislative agencies. By contrast, powerful and cheap health promoting activities, poorly supported by industry because they are too cheap and not patented, are markedly underutilized: technologies for changing behavior (e.g., cardiac rehabilitation), palliative care and use of old, effective and safe drugs - all could benefit from industry's tools of marketing and quality. As those most affected are the sick, the poor and the least educated, free market successes appear to pose unsolvable challenges to social justice in public health.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Advertising
  • Conflict of Interest*
  • Humans
  • Lobbying
  • Mental Health Services*
  • Private Sector*
  • Public Health*
  • Social Justice