When I was a kid watching TV, there was this terrible disease that was going through a scourge of the nation. It was halitosis. Everybody had to use Listerine to get rid of it. When my vocabulary expanded, I found out it was bad breath. Also, good dental care, regularly brushing your teeth and avoiding onions would take care of most cases of bad breath. So, it wasn’t really necessary to take medicine or anything for it.
But that was the beginning of my awareness that not every “problem” seen on TV needed a drug to solve it. Today, TV and magazines seem to be inundated by a tidal wave of products that pharmaceutical companies have developed, to take turn everyday aging or life occurrences and turn them into diseases.
People are becoming patients as the process of aging or everyday health inconveniences become medicalized. For example, normal mourning in the months after the death of a loved one used to be excluded from the definition of depression, but now it is included in the DSM-5, the official diagnostic manual used by psychiatrists, and more likely to be treated with antidepressants. Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is treated with a drug instead of a few minutes of leg exercises. Irregular periods are “treated” with birth control pills, despite the risks of blood clots. Pre-diabetes or pre-osteoporosis are treated with drugs, rather than changes in diet.
News flash: The job of pharmaceutical companies is to sell drugs. Pharmaceutical companies are for-profit companies. Lots of money goes into research for a new drug. But sometimes an unanticipated, but useful additional effect is found.
With Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of the new, additional use, sales for a drug can be expanded well beyond the initial, possibly small market. Essentially, the drug company is getting a second drug to sell free! Many people are familiar with RLS. And why? GlaxoSmithKline spent $36 million advertising it and their solution, Requip, in just one year!
Requip was originally developed for Parkinson’s disease. But doctors started prescribing it off-label for RLS. GSK successfully petitioned the FDA to allow it for severe RLS. Now more people use Requip for RLS than for its original use, Parkinson’s. Considering that the National Institutes of Health estimate that two to three percent of adults actually have RLS, there are a lot of prescriptions being written for Requip.
Many times, restless leg problems can be solved with simple lifestyle changes. The condition may be the result of not getting enough sleep, you’re suffering from stress or anxiety, or if you drink or smoke too much.
More and more often, the pharmaceutical industry is turning to ads that prey on fears in order to promote new treatments to consumers. Now, don’t get me wrong. Vaccines and other drugs serve an important purpose in keeping people healthy and helping them recover from illness. But is Big Pharma using fear to peddle their products to vulnerable consumers?
The answer is a resounding yes.
Disease mongering is defined as taking medical conditions that are just common, everyday occurrences — sometimes they’re just the consequence of aging — and turning it into something where you think it’s a serious medical condition. And if you don’t have it treated, it’s going to significantly impact your health or well-being. This kind of marketing is nothing new for the pharmaceutical industry.
Another group of drugs chasing questionable medical ailments are those for overactive bladder, such as Detrol and Vesicare. Pharmaceutical companies decided to elevate that from just kind of an inconvenience or annoyance to, again, something more serious that requires medical attention and the taking a prescription drug.
If you are thinking these drugs are not a big deal to take because they don’t work, you are mistaken. Every drug has side effects — and some have more serious ones than others.
You may have heard of new treatments for low testosterone or “low T,” which drug companies are purporting as a remedy for low sexual libido. These low T gels are really more akin to “lifestyle drugs” and many doctors are on record saying that low T isn’t even a real condition.
Taking one of these gels, which you just rub on your skin, actually doesn’t do much in terms of increasing your sexual health. And they do come with several risks — most serious among them is the risk of coronary artery disease.
So, what can be done to stop the growing tide of pharma disease mongering? Although the pharmaceutical industry has the right to advertise their treatments on television, magazines, online and other forms of media, Congress can come up with new regulations that could dissuade Big Pharma from appealing to fear to sell drugs.
Beyond governmental intervention, more can be done to inform the public about such ads and why it is important for patients to have substantive discussions with their doctors to find out the best course of treatment for them. Now that’s something I think the pharmaceutical industry could be behind as well.
Suzanne Robotti founded MedShadow Foundation in 2012. Learn more about Su and her mission.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.