How Pharmaceutical Companies Sell Diseases

29 June 2013

What is Disease Mongering?

Do you have a headache? Take some Ibuprofen. Stomach upset? Take a TUMS. Are you lactose intolerant? Eat dairy and just take a lactose pill. Have you been feeling down lately and watching a lot of TV because you feel sad? There’s a pill for that!

A lot of money is made from selling sickness and over-prescribing drugs. This practice is referred to as disease mongering, and medicalizes everyday situations and feelings. 2012 saw Americans spending less on U.S. prescription medicine for the first time since the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics starting keeping track of spending in 1957. Those statistics have more to do with rising healthcare costs and lack of insurance coverage than a change in public perspective on prescription drugs. As this CBSNews article reports, people are visiting the emergency more than before because they can’t afford the doctor’s office. Coupled with the rising use of generic versions of drugs, there is no end in sight for rising healthcare costs. Quick fixes fit well with our on-the-go-wait-for-nothing-instant-gratification culture and pharmaceutical companies thrive because they market quick fix drugs. They are profitable because not only do they market the problem and the solution.

Don’t get me wrong, medicine has its place, I have a couple medications I take on a daily basis that have significantly improved my health and quality of life, plus allergy medicine is a must have come swimsuit season. However, turning to medicines for every problem is not a healing method.

Paxil and Social Anxiety

Paxil, a leading phramaceutical company, hired someone to make social anxiety disorder look like a really common issue. Their commercials featured people who were nervous in social situation and said the solution was as easy as taking their drug (which was originally meant to treat severe depression). Social anxiety disorder is a very real disorder but you don’t suffer from it just because you are shy, awkward, and nervous in some social situations. Check out Seth Stevenson’s article about how he learned to love being shy after taking Paxil for being shy. He even writes that his shyness was not debilitating, where real social anxiety disorder is a debilitating disorder that prevents suffers from completing essential everyday tasks. Stevenson was turned onto Paxil by commercials. He went to the doctor knowing what medicine he wanted and what he wanted it to do for him, he was sold a sickness. I saw this commercial years ago and have never forgotten about it. It’s outrageous, every single person has a nametag that says they are “anxious” or “nervous” or “self-concious” or “afraid” and this MIRACLE pill solves all your worries! I call bullshit.

Restless Leg Syndrome

Drug makers know the importance of convincing the public how necessary their drug is through vigorous advertising, many countries have outlawed advertising medicine while the US continues the practice. One commercial that comes to mind is prescription drugs for Restless Leg Syndrome. RLS is a disorder that causes unpleasant sensations in the legs ranging from irritating to painful. It is characterized as a neurological disorder, yet very little information exists on its cause. Some articles say that it is a sensation that makes you want to get up and walk around and when you do the feeling goes away. Mad TV does a hilarious parody on it.

Sadly, the real commercial about RLS is just as ridiculous.

This commercial makes RLS sounds like “Want to watch TV but you just can’t stop feeling like you need to walk around?” “Are you trying to lay down and need to walk around and then you feel better? This pill can help!” I have sympathy for people who really suffer from this syndrome, but this commercial was not meant to target those people, it’s meant to target everyone.

A Vicious Cycle

These are the TV ads that show diseases and what drug to take to fix that disease or issue.  Not so visible, but just as influential, is marketing aimed at physicians.  Exorbitant amounts of money are spent pushing brands at medical conferences and in medical journals.  “Big Pharma” gives physicians free gifts, samples and golf clubs, all in the name of education.  In the documentary Big Pharma, Big Bucks Dr. Marcia Angell says that “in a sense [we] cannot blame drug companies…these are companies…that’s goal is to get the most profit.  [We must] blame the institution” that allows this to continue.As drug makers promote quick fixes, society increasingly accepts the idea that quick fixes are the real way to cure a disease.  Biomedicine then becomes increasingly separated from the patient and more focused on ‘fixing’ a specific problem.  There is a clear imbalance in western medicine that does not put enough emphasis on holistic care and evidence based prescribing. If society would work towards breaking down the institution of corporations and force a change that puts more emphasis on the patient and less on the profit maybe we could all stop buying our illnesses.

Last updated January 28, 2018

Kristance Harlow

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