How to Better Understand Big Pharma’s Agenda Setting

How to Better Understand Big Pharma’s Agenda Setting

How to better understand big pharma’s agenda setting  is a follow up to an earlier post on  how to understand agenda setting and food shortage.

As I said in an earlier post, people  with chronic pain find reading fiction a pleasant  distraction. It can have the same calming effect of mediation.

This is an artistic inspired cover of Hemingway's "For Whom The Bell tolls"

A scenic book cover of Hemingway’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls”

 Going To Pleasant Places

I pointed out that, wе’ve аll heard the phrase “lose yourself іn а book.” In the case оf reading fiction, іt іѕ actually true. Whеn уоu curl uр with а good book, уоu аrе releasing your mind from the problems уоu’ve experienced during the day. Reading а newspaper article, fоr example, does nоt give уоu the same experience bесаuѕе іt іѕ true and саn in fact cause more worry and stress іn the brain, especially іf that article contains something that pertains tо уоu directly.

This is an oil painting by Ford Madox Brown that shows a scene from Victorian London

Work–An oil painting by Ford Madox Brown

Here’s an interesting follow up.  I have ran into pain sufferer’s who like to have their  minds distracted by topics that take a different slant from the norm. Yes, they love curling up to a good novel but they also enjoy the challenge  of looking at things anew or seeing them from a different perspective.

It’s not that different from pain sufferer’s who like to distract themselves by doing complicated math problems  in their  head. Yeah, most people, including myself, would think doing math when you are already in pain is just asking for more stress. However, the complicated sequences of advanced math can act to  serve as an interesting diversion for some pain sufferers.

A Passion For Provoking Topics

So what happens if the thing that distracts you from your pain is not the joy of math, but intriguing slants on thought  provoking  topics. Well,  the reading center is your place. Here we will explore interesting topics, not always heavy, that will always give you something other than your pain to think about.

Let’s jump in

In the second part of the agenda setting series, I take a look at the pharmaceutical industry.

In their paper, “Pharmaceutical Industry Agenda setting in Mental Health Policies”, Richard Gosden and Sharon Beder examine how the pharmaceutical companies, through front groups, use agenda setting  to expand sales of their products.

Using Front Groups  to Promote Big Pharma’s Agenda Setting

They explain the concept of front groups this way:

Thus, if Burger King were to report that a whopper is nutritious, informed consumers would probably shrug in disbelief….

But if the American Council on Science and Health and its panel of 200 “expert” scientists reported that whoppers were not so bad, consumers might actually listen…[1]

According to Gosden and Beder, “ these front groups lobby governments to legislate in corporate  interest, to oppose undesirable regulations and to introduce policies that enhance corporate profitability. Front groups also campaign to change public opinion so that the markets for corporate goods, for example of psychiatric drugs, are not threatened and are even enhanced.[2]

Gosden and Beder’s notion of the pharmaceutical industry using front groups to set an agenda is supported by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Referring to the issue of advertising in 2000 election, she said the following:


Time Magazine Cover Showing The Intense 2000 Presidential Contest Between George Bush Jr. and Al Gore

Time Magazine Cover Show The Closing Days of The 2000 Election Between George Bush Jr. and Al Gore

The Citizens for Better Medicare, which is a group organized by the pharmaceutical industry, is now approaching in the amount of advertising that it has tha amount spent by the Democratic National Committee. It raises the possibility that we have a third party, Republicans, Democrats, and Citizens for Better Medicare [3]

Violence Seems EveryWhere and That Serves Big Pharma’s Agenda Setting

An example of how the pharmaceutical industry has successfully used agenda setting through a front group can be seen with the issue of schizophrenia. A front group, such as the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC0 associates untreated schizophrenia with news stories about violent behavior.

For instance the group has said,” violent episodes by individuals with untreated schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have risen dramatically now accounting for an estimated 1,000 homicides annually in the  United States [4] This type of pronouncement helps make the case for the pharmaceutical companies.

This is a surreal picture showing the dark side of schizophrenia

A Surreal depiction of a woman suffering from schizophrenia

A Wall Street Journal article, in 20001, describes the market for schizophrenia drugs as a “ fast growing, $5 billion-a-year market in which Eli Lilly’s Zyprexa has already gained a $2.35 billion  share. [5].

When the news media report stories that link schizophrenia with violent behavior, they do the following:

  • They  fulfill the surveillance function by informing us about the dangerousness of untreated schizophrenia.
  • They also fuel the beliefs that contribute to the stigmatization of mental illness, and make us afraid of having a mental hospital in our neighborhood.
  • On the  other hand, one may lobby hard for government sponsored treatment centers to utilize the newest drugs. Thus, the pharmaceutical companies will increase their profits.

When the news media is back up by front groups it can succeed in setting an agenda that benefits industries that under normal circumstances  would be held in low regard.


I began this series examining the question of whether a world food shortage ever existed or if it was a myth created by the news media to increase profitability. In the process of trying to answer the question I have come to the conclusion, as said earlier, that a person’s personal experience determines how well agenda setting works.

Agenda Setting and Mental Illness

For example, lets take the issue of the media associating mental illness with violent behavior. My mother, a former nurse, has worked at a psychiatric ward, and over the years we have had discussions about the causes of mental illness. I have become aware that not everyone in a mental hospital is violent.

An Abstract Drawing Showing a Woman Suffering From Mental Illness

An Abstract Drawing of a Woman Suffering From Mental Illness

Sometimes, for example, people are committed because of long term depression. Violence is not always  a factor.

Also, drug therapy is not always the preferred choice for treating mental illness because not everyone disorder is biologically based.

In short, I know that there are circumstances under which a non-violent person can be committed to a mental hospital. Thus, I am likely to be skeptical about appeals that make an absolute link between violent behavior and mental illness.

On the other hand, I do not have first hand knowledge on what causes famine. Thus, if I were bombarded with news stories  that said there is a world food shortage and it is caused by floods, I would have no reason to doubt them. It is only by doing independent research that I have become skeptical about early conclusions by news media that famine in the Third World was caused by food shortage and floods.

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I like to hear from the readers so please leave me a comment below to let me know if this post helped you or if you have any questions.



  2. Ibid
  4. See Note 1
  5. Wall Street Journal “Pfizer, Eli Lilly Battle for Share of Growing Schizophrenia Market.” May 8, 2001


  1. Peter

    This is an eye-opening post on how big pharmaceutical companies use consumer-friendly front companies to expand market shares. It just goes to show that we all need to be extra careful when it comes to third party messages. We need to know what is their connection to the product they are pushing.

    • Hi Peter,
      One doesn’t want to be cynical because there are some very good consumer friendly organizations that in fact act in the best interest of us all. That said, you make an excellent point. We all need to know who is behind any front group that is endorsing products that may cost a great deal but have limited benefits to the consumer.

  2. Rose

    Well, Thabo, if your intension is to make the reading center a place of interesting discussions, you are already succeeding. I agree with Peter that we can’t take a passive stand when it comes to evaluating messages that may come from consumer organizations that are in reality fronting for conglomerates like the chain pharmaceutic companies. We have to be proactive in figuring out what an organization’s agenda is and how it’s being implemented.

    • Hi Rose,
      I’m so glad you’re following my posts. It’s always a pleasure to hear from you. I couldn’t say it better myself. Yes, we all need to be proactive in figuring out any organization’s agenda that wants our business.

  3. Surprisingly your website showed while I was searching for Hemingway! 🙂 But I am glad I came here. You have some wonderful and useful articles to read. I would have never known this thingy about Pharma companies if I hadn’t come here. Good going!

    • Hi Ani,

      Found my website while searching for Hemingway? Well, I have written a post on reading as mediation and I mention Hemingway a few times. Nice to see how the world gets connected on the web. As for what I call Big Pharma, indeed a lot of people have no idea how Pharma companies use well respected and trusted organizations as front companies to spread the Big Pharma agenda. This is something that more people should be aware off as the costs of healthcare and medicine keep going up.

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