‘The System Is Rigged’: The Anatomy of Big Pharma’s Political Reach

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Choo Choo

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With their long, sordid history, pharmaceutical companies incentivize doctors to prescribe their products through financial rewards. Thanks to their astronomical profit margins, the pharmaceuticals and health products industry is able to spend more on lobbying than any other industry in America.

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“O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the LORD our maker.”  Psalms 95:6 (KJV) 

After graduating from Columbia University with a chemical engineering degree, my grandfather went on to work for Pfizer for almost two decades, culminating his career as the company’s Global Director of New Products.

I was rather proud of this fact growing up — it felt as if this father figure, who raised me for several years during my childhood, had somehow played a role in saving lives. But in recent years, my perspective on Pfizer — and other companies in its class — has shifted.

Blame it on the insidious big pharma corruption laid bare by whistleblowers in recent years. Blame it on the endless string of big pharma lawsuits revealing fraud, deception and cover-ups. Blame it on the fact that I witnessed some of their most profitable drugs ruin the lives of those I love most. All I know is, that pride I once felt has been overshadowed by a sticky skepticism I just can’t seem to shake.

In 1973, my grandpa and his colleagues celebrated as Pfizer crossed a milestone: the $1 billion sales mark. These days, Pfizer rakes in $81 billion a year, making it the 28th most valuable company in the world. Johnson & Johnson ranks 15th, with $93.77 billion.

To put things into perspective, that makes said companies wealthier than most countries in the world. And thanks to those astronomical profit margins, the pharmaceuticals and health products industry is able to spend more on lobbying than any other industry in America.

While big pharma lobbying can take several different forms, these companies tend to target their contributions to senior legislators in Congress — you know, the ones they need to keep in their corner because they have the power to draft healthcare laws.

Pfizer has outspent its peers in six of the last eight election cycles, coughing up almost $9.7 million. During the 2016 election, pharmaceutical companies gave more than $7 million to 97 senators at an average of $75,000 per member. They also contributed $6.3 million to president Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign. The question is: what did big pharma get in return?

ALEC’s off-the-record sway

To truly grasp big pharma’s power, you need to understand how The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) works. ALEC, which was founded in 1973 by conservative activists working on Ronald Reagan’s campaign, is a super secretive pay-to-play operation where corporate lobbyists — including in the pharma sector — hold confidential meetings about “model” bills. A large portion of these bills is eventually approved and become law.

A rundown of ALEC’s greatest hits will tell you everything you need to know about the council’s motives and priorities. In 1995, ALEC promoted a bill that restricts consumers’ rights to sue for damages resulting from taking a particular medication. They also endorsed the Statute of Limitation Reduction Act, which put a time limit on when someone could sue after a medication-induced injury or death.

Over the years, ALEC has promoted many other pharma-friendly bills that would: weaken the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversight of new drugs and therapies, limit FDA authority over drug advertising, and oppose regulations on financial incentives for doctors to prescribe specific drugs. But what makes these ALEC collaborations feel particularly problematic is that there’s little transparency — all of this happens behind closed doors.

Congressional leaders and other committee members involved in ALEC aren’t required to publish any records of their meetings and other communications with pharma lobbyists, and the roster of ALEC members is completely confidential. All we know is that in 2020, more than two-thirds of Congress — 72 senators and 302 House of Representatives members — cashed a campaign check from a pharma company.

Big pharma funding research

The public typically relies on an endorsement from government agencies to help them decide whether or not a new drug, vaccine or medical device is safe and effective. And those agencies, like the FDA, count on clinical research. As already established, big pharma is notorious for getting its hooks into influential government officials.

Here’s another sobering truth: The majority of scientific research is paid for by the pharmaceutical companies.

When the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published 73 studies of new drugs over the course of a single year, they found that a staggering 82% of them had been funded by the pharmaceutical company selling the pro…

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