Healthy people are being turned into patients by drug firms which publicise
mental and sexual problems and promote little-known conditions only then to
reveal the medicines they say will treat them
The Guardian carries an unusually critical look at the commercial tricks used
by big-pharma to maintain its psychological grip over people in the wealthy
world. Researchers say that “extending the range of the abnormal”
is the most common sleight of hand used to sell parental anxiety, false maladies
and sexual insecurity – not exactly news to GNN, but good coverage in
the mainstream media.
[Posted By Szamko]
By Ian Sample
Republished from the
Big pharma under the spotlight, and guess what's been
You are lying on the sofa after a hard day at work and should be relaxing. But
you are overcome by an insatiable urge to kick your legs about. As you struggle
to control yourself, your kids run riot in the room. And to cap it all, your
sex life is rubbish.
Just an everyday scene in many people’s ordinary lives, or the combination
of three newly identified medical conditions that can be treated at the pop
of a pill?
The latter, according to some of the world’s biggest, most profitable
pharmaceutical companies, which have come up with a range of new drugs to treat
“restless legs syndrome”, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
in children, and female sexual dysfunction. But according to reports published
today, the truth is more complicated. Healthy people are being turned into patients
by drug firms which publicise mental and sexual problems and promote little-known
conditions only then to reveal the medicines they say will treat them.
The studies, published in a respected medical journal, accuse the pharmaceutical
industry of “disease mongering” – a practice in which the
market for a drug is inflated by convincing people they are sick and in need
of medical treatment.
The “corporate-sponsored creation of disease” wastes resources
and may even harm people because of the medication they turn to, the researchers
In 11 papers in the journal Public Library of Science Medicine, experts from
Britain, the US and elsewhere argue that new diseases are being defined by specialists
who are often funded by the drug industry.
According to the researchers, the campaigns boost drug sales by medicalising
aspects of normal life such as sexuality, portray mild problems such as irritability
in children as serious illnesses and suggest that rare health conditions, such
as the urge to move ones’ legs, are common.
“Disease mongering exploits the deepest atavistic fears of suffering
and death,” said Iona Heath, a general practitioner at the Caversham Practice
in London who contributed to the journal. She added: “It is in the interests
of pharmaceutical companies to extend the range of the abnormal so that the
market for treatments is proportionately enlarged.”
In the journal’s editorial, guest editors Ray Moynihan and David Henry
write: “Informal alliances of pharmaceutical corporations, public relations
firms, doctors’ groups and patient advocates promote these ideas to the
public and policy makers, often using mass media to push a certain view of a
particular health problem.”
In one of the reports, Dr Joel Lexchin, a drug safety expert at York University
in Toronto, alleges that Pfizer, the maker of Viagra, devised ways to “ensure
that the drug was seen as a legitimate therapy for almost any man”, and
“took steps to make sure Viagra was not relegated to a niche role of just
treating men with [erectile dysfunction] due to organic causes, such as diabetes
or prostate surgery”.
The message from adverts and Pfizer’s website, “is that everyone,
whatever their age, at one time or another, can use a little enhancement,”
In a statement, Pfizer said it “only promotes prescription medicines
to healthcare professionals and only in line with its licensed indications.
Pfizer does not promote any of its prescription medicines to the general public
and does not recommend, or promote the use of Viagra, outside of its licensed
It added: “Viagra has been available in the UK for over seven years and
is an important treatment for erectile dysfunction. All promotion of Viagra
is aimed at educating health professionals on this serious condition, to enable
them to effectively treat patients with this condition.”
According to Leonore Tiefer, clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University,
a textbook case of disease mongering is the creation and promotion of “female
sexual dysfunction”. The campaign by a number of drug companies has been
especially successful in the US, he notes, where there has been a heavily contested
attempt to convince the public that 43% of women live with the condition.
In another paper, David Healy, director of the department of psychosocial medicine
at the University of Wales, Bangor, describes how a TV advertisement from Lilly
Pharmaceuticals encouraged people to find out about mood disorders via a website
sponsored by the company. “This advert markets bipolar disorder,”
he writes in the journal.
Dr Graham Archard, vice-chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners,
said it was inevitable that drug companies benefited from such campaigns.
“If a company produces a product, they are going to want to market it
in the best way they can and if they can increase public awareness of a condition
that may or may not exist, then a person may well believe they have that condition
and look for treatment,” he said. “There’s a limited amount
of cash in the NHS and if people are spending limited resources on areas that
aren’t terribly important, that will detract from areas of greater importance.
Potentially we could all be losers.”
Lilly Pharmaceuticals said: “Bipolar disorder is one of the most debilitating
and serious psychiatric illnesses there is. Appropriate treatment should be
decided after the treating clinician has fully evaluated the person’s
condition and discussed the full range of treatment options. The advertisement
that Dr Healy refers to was not designed for and was not shown to the general
public in the UK. Olanzapine (Zyprexa) is not approved for use in children.
Lilly does not market it for use in children.”
GlaxoSmithKline said: “It’s estimated that 10-15% of adults suffer
from restless legs syndrome, yet it is a very underdiagnosed medical condition,
which even when diagnosed, often leaves people without effective treatment.
About 3% of adults experience moderate to severely distressing RLS symptoms
at least two to three times a week and are likely to benefit from treatment.”
Pfizer asserts that more than half of all men over 40 have difficulties getting
or maintaining an erection, a figure contested by many studies.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Prescriptions for ADHD drugs escalated during the 1990s following the organised
penetration of the education system by the pharmaceutical industry. Teachers
may be most likely to report signs of behavioural disorders.
Female sexual dysfunction (FSD)
Publicised as the female equivalent of erectile dysfunction, FSD has been
plagued by vague definition. In the British Medical Journal, John Bancroft,
director of the prestigious Kinsey Institute, called it “preconceived”
and “non-evidence based”.
Selling bipolar disorder has become “the latest mania” according
to David Healy at Bangor University in Wales. Awareness campaigns have encouraged
people to “mood watch”.
Restless legs syndrome
A campaign launched by GlaxoSmithKline in 2003 raised RLS as a “common
yet unrecognised disorder”. In 2005, the company was granted approval
to use its drug, Ropinirole, to treat the condition.