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Do Pharmaceuticals Help or Harm?

By Brandi Tolleson

When “Big Pharma” is talked about in the headlines today, the tone is often ambivalent, as the increasing cost of pharmaceuticals does not mesh with the billions of dollars in profits that these companies make each year. Stories about questionable overseas business practices, as well as horrific accounts of failed drug trials continue to fuel debates about the need for new drug safety regulations and price controls. However, there is no debate about the necessity of pharmaceuticals in improving quality of life as well as the fundamental role they have played in medical science.

Risks of Pharmaceutical Testing

In order to stay competitive, pharmaceutical companies need to bring new drugs to market. They use pharmacists and doctors to sponsor clinical trials that pay qualifying volunteers to act as human “guinea pigs” for these experiments. No harm is done most of the time, but occasionally a trial will go horribly wrong. In London, for instance, six men were given an anti-inflammatory drug that resulted in serious injuries, with one patient suffering from permanent damage to his organs. While the company responsible for the trial claimed that the volunteers were informed about the risks, one of the men stated that they never told him that the drug could damage his immune system. Horror stories like this have prompted investigation into whether or not these companies are rushing through the drug development process for the sake of making a buck.

Safe and Cost-Effective


Even though drug research and development carries potentially fatal risks to trial volunteers, the need for testing remains paramount in making safer and more cost-effective drugs. The field of HIV research has especially shown how these developments have improved the lives of those suffering from the disease, as the life expectancies of HIV patients in Britain have increased to 15 years due to the availability of safer and cheaper drugs. There are even reports of a pill that may prevent HIV infection entirely, though it is still in the testing phase. While this may not bring comfort to the survivors of the London trial, the possibility of eradicating AIDS and other fatal diseases is enough to justify further drug tests.


Another criticism the pharmaceutical industry faces is the way it outsources drug manufacturing plants overseas to developing countries. Researchers in Sweden, for instance, have discovered that pharmaceutical plants in India are producing wastewater filled with antibiotic chemicals that may lead to more resistant strains of bacteria. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have become an alarming concern for scientists, as the number of effective treatments for serious infections such as tuberculosis and pneumonia dwindles with each new resistant strain. While outsourcing enables companies to mass-produce drugs cheaply, the environmental threat may someday outstrip the benefits.

Aiding Developing Countries

Overseas testing does not lead to negative results all the time, as it is one of the best ways to fund the huge cost of drug development by opening up new markets. Several large companies, such as GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer, have been exporting their intellectual property to developing nations that need cures for tuberculosis, malaria, and other tropical diseases. By this act of “charity,” these companies gain new buyers all while saving thousands of lives in the process.

While the damage that pharmaceuticals cause can be devastating to the lives of their victims as well as to the environment, the fact that these drugs have saved countless lives shows that these companies have done far more good than harm. The local drugstore pharmacy technician that dispenses these little pills each day may not even realize how crucial a role they play in the lives of millions of people.

About the Author

Brandi Tolleson received her master’s degree in English from Cal State Long Beach in 2007.


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