Big Bucks, Big Pharma


by Natural Health Strategies

Newly released by the Media Education Foundation, “Big Bucks, Big Pharma” pulls back the curtain on the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry to expose the insidious ways that illness is used, manipulated, and in some instances created, for capital gain.

Focusing on the industry’s marketing practices, media scholars and health professionals help viewers understand the ways in which direct-to-consumer (DTC) pharmaceutical advertising glamorizes and normalizes the use of prescription medication, and works in tandem with promotion to doctors.

Combined, these industry practices shape how both patients and doctors understand and relate to disease and treatment.


Watch the Video Documentary Big Bucks, Big Pharma

Movie Documentary: Big Bucks Big Pharma

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Main Points from the Introduction

  • In the last decade the use of prescription drugs has become a regular part of life for millions of Americans.
  • Advertising for prescription drugs constantly encourages patients to “ask your doctor” about the latest medication.
  • The pharmaceutical industry includes some of the biggest corporations in the world, companies like Pfizer, Merck, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, and others. In 2004 “Big Pharma” generated 550 billion dollars in combined global sales.
  • In the U.S. most of Big Pharma’s profits come from the sale of prescription medications.
  • Traditionally pharmaceutical companies have directed most of their promotional efforts at health professionals. But in recent years they are also using more and more direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising to target patients directly.
  • From 1996 to 2004, spending on DTC advertising rose over 500% to more than 4 billion dollars a year.
  • In the face of this intensive marketing campaign, citizens must ask how this powerful industry is affecting how we think about our health.

Ultimately, Big Bucks, Big Pharma challenges us to ask important questions about the consequences of relying on a for-profit industry for our health and well-being.

Featuring interviews with:

Dr. Marcia Angell (Dept. of Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Former Editor New England Journal of Medicine)
Dr. Bob Goodman (Columbia University Medical Center; Founder, No Free Lunch)
Gene Carbona (Former Pharmaceutical Industry Insider and Current Executive Director of Sales, The Medical Letter)
Katharine Greider (Journalist; Author, The Big Fix: How the Pharmaceutical Industry Rips Off American Consumers)
Dr. Elizabeth Preston (Dept. of Communication, Westfield State College)
Dr. Larry Sasich (Public Citizen Health Research Group) Producer/Editor: Ronit Ridberg

More Points from the Documentary “Big Bucks, Big Pharma”

  • DTC advertising of prescription drugs uses the same techniques as advertising for other commodities: branding products by associating them with positive emotions and images of happy people living fulfilling lives. You rarely see patients suffering from ailments in these ads.
  • The positive images, however, are often contradicted by the lists of unpleasant and/or dangerous side effects that the industry is legally required to report.
  • The ads are effective in influencing patients. Doctors talk about patients who come in with lists of drugs that they’ve seen advertised. Sometimes they don’t even know what the drug they want is actually meant to treat.
  • This influence is especially important because of what is at stake in the advertising of medications: it is our health that it is potentially jeopardized. The positive images of happy, healthy people in drug advertising can be misleading in terms of the safety of the drugs themselves. Adverse drug reactions lead to 1.5 million hospitalizations and 100,000 deaths a year in the U.S. This is the 5th leading cause of death in America.
  • Vioxx, for example, though prescribed for arthritis, was found to increase patients’ risk of heart attack. In 2000 more money was spent on promoting Vioxx than was spent on promoting Budweiser or Pepsi.
  • The pharmaceutical industry defends DTC advertising as educational but skeptics say this is ridiculous. Thirty-second images of idyllic scenes do not serve an educational purpose. Furthermore, the companies that profit from selling more prescriptions cannot be counted on for objective educational information about the drugs they are trying to sell.

You can find study guides for teachers using the film in the classroom or for homeschoolers teaching at home as well as a transcript of the film at the Media Education Foundation site.


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