Should Placebos be Illegal?

Intro video

UN Goal

Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels

Driving question

Are placebos ethically correct, and do its pros outweigh its cons? Should placebos be restricted by the government or made illegal?

What is a placebo?

A placebo is a treatment substance given to a patient as medication, but is actually inert and has no curing capabilities. It is often given as a pill or injection and is made to look like the real medication, but doesn’t directly cure the disease or illness. They mostly come in the form of sugar pills instead of the actual pill. Because the placebos are prescribed as the actual medication, doctors cannot tell the patient that they are giving placebos and the patient has to believe that it is the real pill.

Why would doctors prescribe placebos?

Placebos are used in research studies in order to find out if a certain medication really cures the illness. There is a chance that the medication could only work by chance, and so by prescribing placebos among them, researchers are able to test out if the medications actually work. However, placebos force doctors to lie to the patients, telling them that the placebos are the real pill. In an survey of doctors done by the National Institutes of Health, half of the doctors said that they prescribe placebos regularly.

The Placebo Effect

Another reason to prescribe placebos is because of something called the placebo effect. While the placebos don’t directly affect the illness, they are proven to affect how people feel. In some cases, these effects can positively change the patients’ symptoms, but it can also go the other way, and make patients feel worse. This change in the patients’ symptoms is called the placebo effect. Through the placebo effect, patients prescribed placebos might experience a reduction in anxiety, depression, pain, and sleep disorders.

Why does the placebo effect happen?

While it is unknown why the placebo effect occurs, there are many theories. The most common and popular theory is that placebos works because of the patients’ expectations. The patient believes that they are given the real medication and expects to feel better, so the brain can cause the body to react in positive ways. For example, if a patient is given a placebo that is said to be a depressant, he may feel less anxious, so his stress levels will drop. Moreover, some evidence show that placebos cause the brain to release endorphins, which are the body’s natural pain killers, which helps reduce the patient’s pain. However, the curing rate of the placebo effect can range form a low of 15% to a high 72%, making it a very unstable treatment.

Ethically correct?

However, placebos raise a major issue: is it ethically correct to prescribe patients fake medication? While it is true that placebos provide vital data for medical research, does that justify doctors lying to their patients? Furthermore, do the positive effects of the placebo effect justify the giving of fake pills instead of real ones?

First, the American Medical Association’s code of medical ethics states that a placebo may be used “only if the patient is informed of and agrees to its use,” but doctors manage to work around this code. It allows the patient to be informed in a indirect way, and makes them give consent while not even knowing it.  

On one hand, for a patient who is suffering greatly but has no direct cure, a placebo can relieve them of their pain due to the placebo effect. For these patients, prescribing a placebo isn’t ethically bad.

On the other hand, for a patient desperately searching for a cure, being given a placebo is an insulting and devastating act, even if they don’t know that it is a placebo. Dr. Harriet Hall states that it is unethical to give placebos because “it involves deception” and “lying is wrong, and if doctors start lying to patients, it destroys trust.” She also says that “it’s a slippery slope” to worse medical offenses.


So are placebos ethically correct or not? When weighing the pros and cons, I believe that placebos are not correct, and should not be used due to its deceptiveness and blatant lying to the patients. Although it can help certain patients because of the placebo effect, doctors should be able to do so without lying. Doctors deal with people’s lives and patients are completely reliant on them, so a deceptive relationship between them is morally wrong. Therefor, the usage of placebos should restricted. In a critical situation where the patient’s life is on the line, doctors should 100% have to tell the patient exactly what medication they are prescribing them. Placebos can still be used for research purposes during research, but that should not extend to actual medical situations.

Call for Action

So what can you do as an individual to help? The best thing to do is to just be aware of the issues with placebos, and spread the information. Sites like this one can be used to raise awareness, and sharing this site can help with the issue.

Poll: what do you think?


  • Falco, Miriam. “Placebo Effect.” American Cancer Society, American Cancer Society,
  • “Why Are Placebos Important?” National Institute on Aging, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
  • “The Placebo Effect: What Is It?” WebMD, WebMD,
  • Half of U.S. Doctors Often Prescribe Placebos.”, NBCUniversal News Group, 23 Oct. 2008,
  • Morgan, Ron. EXTRA-STRENGTH PLACEBO. Cartoon Stock. 09 Apr. 2019 <>.
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  1. April 27, 2019 by Julia.Kashimura

    Hi! I really like this page since I was already interested in the placebo effect. Getting an insight into the doctor’s perspective and is also very cool. Bringing ethics into this topic is very creative and I really enjoyed that. What do you think are the best ways for people to spread this information?

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