Economics of Cancer: Will We Win the War?


What do Bob Marley and Walt Disney have in common? In addition to them both being internationally renowned for their media presence, they became victims to cancer. The illness strikes indiscriminately. According to Centre for Disease Control (CDC), about eight million people annually die from cancer, and 39.8% are diagnosed with the disease at some point in their lifetime. Bringing figures into perspective, only one percent of the population eats in McDonald’s (Business Insider, 2012).As such, the scale of cancer prevention and treatment industry is tragically large. What are the estimates of the cost of the illness to society? What funds, realistically, are required to find the cure, and how much should you donate?


The intuitive answer to the above can be found in official figures presented by healthcare bodies. The NHS, for instance, spends £5 billion annually on cancer cure and research, whereas globally, the overall cost reaches $895 billion per year (DrugWatch, 2015). Comparatively, heart disease costs $753 billion, with traffic accidents and diabetes each costing about $204 billion. According to British Journal of Cancer, the total treatment cost accounts to an equivalent of £30,000 per patient in the UK, out of which 85% is funded by the NHS. Moreover, last year budget for cancer drugs fund has been increased to £340 million, making standard treatment relatively affordable.


This is not the case for many other nations. In the United States, for example, patients are often hit by more severe out-of-pocket costs. As a result of anti-competitive power exhibited by the nation’s pharmaceutical industry, the price of treatments averages at $10,000 per month, with some therapies topping $30,000, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Vinay K. Prasad pointed out a tendency of global pharmaceutical giants to abuse of market power. One illustration of such monopoly behavior can be seen with firms, such as the Swiss firm Novartis, to have increased the price of cancer drugs ‘from $30,000 in 2001 to $76,000 despite the fact that it costs less than $200 dollars to manufacture a year's supply”. Other medications undergo a similarly disproportionate mark-ups. Within the United Kingdom, the price of Daraprim, a medication used by AIDS patients, averages $0.66, whilst in the US consumers purchase a single tablet at$750 (BBC, September 2015). Therefore, it is not the matter of scarce donations or distribution of income that should be addressed, but despotism of the monopolies. The issue does not lie with scarce donations towards current cancer remedies or research. Instead the problem lies with the avaricious nature of pharmaceutical monopoly industries.


The emerging subfield titled ‘economics of cancer’ houses a number of controversial debates. Whilst some researchers advocate sponsorship to develop a cure, others argue that this branch of healthcare has grown too precious to be cut off from funding. An oncological revolution would lead to shrinking profits and unemployment growth. In the 2010 documentary titled Cut Poison Burn, filmmaker Wayne Chesler presents powerful quotes about corruption in the business of conventional cancer treatment in the US. For example, Dr. Linus Pauling, laureate of a Nobel Prize in chemistry, remarks that “everyone should know that most cancer research is largely a fraud”. Although this is an overstatement bearing in mind success of Acelarin, a “remarkable” invention produced in Cardiff University last year (BBC, May 2015), corruption definitely is a major barrier preventing patients from living longer.


As a further illustration, the American Institute for Cancer Research estimates Americans lost 83 million years of healthy life because of cancer deaths in 2008 – this, transferred into loss of life and productivity, accounts for 1.5 percent of global GDP losses (DrugWatch, 2015). In an ideal world, the price of drugs would only reflect the cost of producing that one drug, and patents would be enough to reward the ingenuity of the inventor, but not so that it would exclude cancer patients an opportunity to live longer. Scientific progress would not be hindered by the need to generate profit. In an ideal world, we would not lose David Bowie, or Alan Rickman, or 7.6 million other people every year for reasons associated with satisfying the profits of pharmaceutical giants.


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