2007-10-04 / This Week's Attitude

This Week's Attitude

Drug Companies Have Made U.S. World's Pill-Popping Capital
By Neil S. Friedman

By Neil S. Friedman

While some Americans repeatedly ignore illegal drug laws and clandestinely partake of an occasional joint or snort (that's marijuana and cocaine for the uninitiated), the majority indulges in a perfectly law-abiding method for getting their ups, downs and sideways - with prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications. In this day and age, it seems all you have to do to feel better or revitalized is swallow a tablet or a gel capsule.

In the last decade or so, thanks to a glut of advertising and promotion, pharmaceutical companies, which increased marketing expenditures by nearly 300 percent since 1997, have turned America into the pill popping capital of the world. And with sales soaring annually it appears many Americans have readily cooperated, giving drug companies record profits routinely higher than other Fortune 500 companies.

While the United States makes up just five percent of the world's population, according to various Web sites, it accounts for an incredible 42 percent of the world's spending on prescription drugs, estimated at more than $250 billion in the last year. That figure doesn't include the additional billions spent on more accessible OTC pills and other medicinal pick-me-ups and bring-me-downs.

The average TV viewer is bombarded with an estimated 10 prescription drug ads a day. And obliging doctors, who used to advise patients that pain was part of the healing process, have gradually turned them onto to pain killers to overcome the aches. Does anyone doubt that drug companies are behind the change of treatment?

On a positive - very positive - note, as medical science has evolved it has discovered countless cures for what ails us, thus prolonging our lives, but, on the negative side, in its painstaking research, it appears to also have pioneered myriad pharmaceuticals for the hypochondriac in all of us. It's as if some of us have channeled the fictional "Odd Couple" character Felix Unger, who never found an ailment he didn't have.

While most people take painkillers as prescribed, there are the unscrupulous who abuse them simply because they are readily available. By the way, they are more available because the Food and Drug Administration eased regulations allowing prescription medications to be promoted directly to consumers through media advertising.

Critics of the pharmaceutical industry maintain that Americans run to doctors demanding a "magic" pill for the latest malady based primarily on information they got on television. With drug companies flourishing these days and millions of prescriptions filled daily, it seems likely that some doctors willingly accommodate those patients.

For instance, until recently, have you ever heard of or known someone whose daily life was severely affected by RLS (restless leg syndrome)? And do many people actually suffer from sleep disorders? If not, why is there a need for new sleeping pill, except hearty competition? But there has also been a proliferation of medications for common ailments such as allergies, asthma, atherosclerosis - and that's just the A's!

Although the key ingredient in Viagra and other ED (erectile dysfunction) pills was supposedly accidentally discovered while researching something else, aren't more vital remedies needed? The many disclaimers and risks that usually accompany ED medicines appear to be less worrisome for some than fulfilling one's sex life.

The genuine danger with sampling the flood of new pills not approved by the FDA - which does not guarantee potency - is that no one knows the drugs' long-term effects, despite whatever clinical tests were done before they were ready for consumers. Cynics, like me, tend to be skeptical of a company performing its own test or survey on a product in which they've already invested millions.

Nowadays there's no need for pushers, as distributors of illegal drugs are universally known, since the advertising industry, which, undoubtedly, is well compensated by drug companies, has replaced them. And it's all on the up-and-up or the down-and-down, depending on one's particular need or mood.

There are pills and ads for everything and, seemingly, newly diagnosed disorders that may be controlled by ingesting them. It's as if 19th century medicine shows have been revived as contemporary pharmaceutical conglomerates that offer modern medicinal cures for whatever might ail us.

Of course, these new drugs must work or they wouldn't be marketed for long. But do you listen to or read about the potential side effects most of them may cause? In a 30-second drug spot, half of it may be a disclaimer about the problems these medicines could exacerbate. Someone might be worse off after taking the cure than they were with the initial complaint. But some pill poppers neglect the risks.

Oh, don't forget to peruse the fine-print disclaimers on TV and in most print ads that typically notes: These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.

Who do ya think made those statements? The damn manufacturer!!!

I've been working on this column so long I have a headache. Think I'll go pop a pill!

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