When “Big Pharma” Makes It Tough to be a Skeptic

Rebecca Watson

But this is what it means to be a skeptic
– doing your research and understanding that an industry can
be suspect and immoral without necessarily being pure evil.

As an outspoken skeptic with a large
audience and a keen interest in not dying of horrific diseases, I’m
often accused of being in the pocket of “Big Pharma,” the shady
multinational conglomerate of drug companies that makes money by poisoning
our water supply and injecting children with heroin and thumbtacks.

Critics of Big Pharma rush to comment
whenever I post a video describing the relative safety of vaccines,
the effectiveness of achieving herd immunity, or the underhanded tactics
of frauds like Andrew Wakefield. I am told that I must be cashing checks
to defend products produced by pharmaceutical companies, since there
is so much anecdotal evidence that they are evil.

When I first started getting comments
like that, I had to laugh – back in 2003, I worked for a progressive
activist organization in Seattle that was fighting the pharmaceutical
industry in the hopes that Medicare could be reformed to include coverage
for prescription medication.

When Medicare was enacted in 1965,
prescription drugs weren’t very expensive and so it wasn’t a great
burden for the elderly to pay full price for their medicine. A few decades
later, the costs skyrocketed in the US with the pharmaceutical companies’
newly discovered power of marketing directly to the consumer: “Be sure to ask your doctor how Fungallipitox
can work for you.” I knew many seniors in the area who took buses
a few hours north to Canada, where their inhalers cost $20 per month
instead of $200.

My organization and others like it
eventually found a bit of success fighting the extraordinarily powerful
pharmaceutical lobby (
tied with the financial lobby as the US’s largest), and in 2006 a prescription drug benefit
was added to Medicare. Unfortunately, there are still gaps that leave
many seniors paying a large portion of their income to keep themselves

But this is what it means to be a skeptic
– doing your research and understanding that an industry can
be suspect and immoral without necessarily being pure evil. I know that
pharmaceutical companies play dirty, but I also know that vaccines save

All of which brings us to sex, and
whether or not women are having enough of it. I know, way to bury the
lede, right?

Female sexual arousal disorder is a
hot new area of interest for pharmaceutical companies, who, you may
recall, recently solved all of mankind’s problems by inventing Viagra.
Viagra works by increasing blood flow to the genitals, thus curing erectile
dysfunction, a disorder coined by Pfizer. Interestingly, it works the
exact same way in women.

The problem that pharmaceutical companies
face is that women don’t necessarily seem to react the same way to
Viagra. Some feel their sexual problems are fixed, and others feel no
difference. Women and their bodies, as you may know, are grand mysteries.
Like unicorns. And for some reason, simply stimulating their genitals
is not necessarily a guaranteed way to get them interested in having
intercourse. “I’ve baked this lovely cake and set it in front of
the unicorn, but the unicorn isn’t eating. Why is the unicorn not

“Perhaps we can invent a pill that
will make the unicorn want the cake?”


And so it was that the pharmaceutical
companies created a pill: Flibanserin (sexy!), which directly affects
the brain to trigger sexual desire.

With Viagra, the data showed that it
could drastically improve the sex lives of men, and so it is difficult
to fault drug companies for coining a phrase, tutoring doctors, and
marketing their cure to the general public. In the case of female sexual
arousal disorder, though, things are a bit more nuanced.

Dr. Petra Boynton recently
spoke publicly about being offered £250 by a pharmaceutical
company to sign her name to a pre-written paper that would tell doctors
how many women suffer from arousal disorder. That same company offered
her £1000 to attend sessions where she would hear more about the disorder
before being encouraged to go tell her students, doctors, and the media
about the issue. All of this was done before clinical trial data was
made available.

She refused. She believes that the
data supporting the safety and efficacy of these medications is unconvincing,
noting that they perform only slightly better than placebo and they
are never compared to alternative psychosexual therapies.

Dr. Ben Goldacre is similarly unconvinced.
He also points out that much of the data on female sexual arousal disorder
is suspect – for instance, one of the most cited papers on the
prevalence of the disorder claims that 43% of women have it. This is
based on a three-question survey that was sent out to 1749 women; an
answer of “yes” to just one question is all that is needed
for that woman to be labeled with the disorder. One of the paper’s authors later admitted
that he held a paid advisory position with Pfizer.

It’s difficult for me, as a pro-sex
feminist skeptic, to argue against a medical treatment that might improve
the sex lives of women. It would be wonderful for pharmaceutical companies
to once again coin a new disorder, and in doing so open up conversation
about it. Ideally, this would encourage women to feel more comfortable
opening up more about their sexual health problems, and researchers
would commit more time and resources to studying these problems and
putting them into context. Is the woman under stress? Is she unfamiliar
with her body? Is her partner unwilling or unable to satisfy her? Or
is she having a biological problem?

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem
to be the path we’re on. Instead of exploring those questions and
encouraging sex education, pharmaceutical companies’ marketing
departments are selling a magical cure-all pill that likely won’t
cure anything at all in the women they are targeting. It’s classic
Big Pharma: questionable trial results, paid opinion leaders educating
doctors, marketing departments guiding research, and other underhanded,
non-science-based tactics. As skeptics, we should speak out against
this behavior when it is uncovered, and it will only strengthen our
position when we are defending the Big Pharma products that are actually
saving lives.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org and appears on the weekly Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.