The unhealthy ways companies sell us their drugs
By Isabel Braverman
Everyone knows the shtick—you go to the doctor’s office, talk for 20 minutes about what is ailing you, the doctor gives you a prescription and you go to the pharmacy to pick it up. No one ever questions this age-old practice, yet there is still an underlying sketchiness. What exactly is in the medicine that doctors give us?
There are many answers to this question, and most of them are unethical. It’s clear that drug companies have a hidden agenda. They want to make the consumer believe that they need their product, even if that means making up a disease. Drug companies get through to consumers in two major ways: advertisements and doctors.
Everyone has seen drug commercials with attractive people riding bicycles or a mom in the park with her children. Somehow, these cliche and contrived ads sell drugs. These commercials ask general questions in order to make their drugs seem needed by all viewers, such as “Are you not getting enough sleep?” And it is no coincidence; drug companies know exactly what they’re doing. In fact, direct-to-consumer drug commercials are only legal in the U.S. and New Zealand, though there are many advocates for outlawing this practice. In other countries, drug commercials are banned.
Although they make it seem like they do, drug companies do not care much about people’s health. They are simply companies trying to make a profit in any way possible, even if that means harming the customer (ever really listen to the side effects at the end of a drug ad?)
“Drug advertisements to consumers are intended to make them buy, not to educate. They hurt, not help, public health,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization and a blogger for the Huffington Post.
According to Our Daily Meds by Melody Petersen, a former New York Times reporter, the drug company Warner-Lambert illegally sold neurontin, a drug used to treat epilepsy, as a treatment for bipolar disorder, migraines, attention deficit disorder in children and other conditions. The drug did not work, and many users were injured and wasted money and emotional energy.
How do they do this? Just like any other company, they appeal to the masses. “Advertising works,” Weissman said. “Advertising for drugs is no different than advertising for cars or candy bars.”
But the general public isn’t the only pool Big Pharma is persuading; doctors also fall for their trap. In fact, drug advertisements only account for less than a tenth of their industry’s marketing expenditures ($4 billion of $57.5 billion in 2004). The majority, 70 percent, of drug companies’ focus is aimed at doctors. Researchers Marc-Andre Gagnon and Joel Lexchin concluded in an issue of the journal PLoS Medicine, a peer-reviewed open-access journal published by the Public Library of Science, that Big Pharma spends more than $20 billion a year on “detailers”—the drug company representatives that ply doctors with free coffee and lunches, distribute samples ($16 billion worth) and coerce doctors to prescribe their drugs. These companies also pay doctors to attend informational sessions about their product, provide consulting fees for services rendered and fund scientific research.
Everyone who has been to a doctor’s office knows it is laden with pens, calendars, clocks, coffee mugs and other paraphernalia bearing the emblems of different drug companies. It may seem like it is product placement for the patient, but really pharmaceutical companies give these free gifts to doctors in the hopes that they will subconsciously return the favor.
Drug companies did not attain their power by accident. They know what they are doing and exert control over every aspect of their campaigns. For example, a November 2005 New York Times article stated that drug companies recruit sales representatives from the likes of college cheerleaders. In the article, Dr. Thomas Carli of the University of Michigan said, “There’s a saying that you’ll never meet an ugly drug rep.”
The reason our population is over-medicated is traced to pharmaceutical companies. In her book, Petersen states Americans spent $250 billion on prescription drugs in 2005, more than they spent on gas or fast food in 2004. It seems shocking then that Americans are pooling their money into a product that is more dangerous than car accidents. Prescription pills are estimated to kill 270 Americans each day, twice as many as the number for car accidents (110). These are mostly caused by side effects which can be more damaging to patients than the original disease.
Not only can prescription drugs be harmful, but also unnecessary. For example, one study showed, in cases of depression, a placebo is 80 percent effective as an actual pill. The reason for this is because some doctors are more influenced by drug companies than actual research when determining which medicines are most effective.
As Petersen said in her book, “Patients do not get the best medicines for their ailments at the best prices… [They] suffer when they get the wrong drug because the industry’s powerful promotional forces have distorted the available medical information.”
These “medicine merchants,” as Petersen calls them, are so powerful they can create diseases. Petersen cites in her book a case where formerdrug manufacturer Pharmacia made a pill called Detrol to alleviate Pharmacia’s newly coined disease, “overactive bladder.” The company made people believe that going to the bathroom too much was not only a problem but a disease. However, many doctors said it was not a disease to be treated with medication but is a normal part of aging and should be changed by changing one’s habits. Pharmacia’s vice president, Neil Wolf, even held a presentation in January 2003 at the Pharmaceutical Marketing Global Summit titled “Positioning Detrol (Creating a Disease).”
The solution to this huge dilemma is for the government to exert more control over drug companies. If direct-to-consumer drug advertising were made illegal and doctors were not allowed to accept favors from the medicine merchants, then there would be a glimmer of hope that patients would receive medication they truly need and America would not be excessively drugged.
Isabel Braverman is a sophomore journalism major who is never fooled by a placebo. E-mail her at email@example.com.