Drug companies don't just sell you drugs, they sell you the need for them
America is one of the most medicated societies in the world. In 2012, almost $326 billion dollars was spent on prescription drugs alone. Sit down to watch any sporting event and you’ll think that American men can’t pee without help or satisfy their women without a “little, blue pill.” Sit down to watch the evening news and the commercials portray American women who have little, black depression clouds that never leave them.
The clouds are only reduced in size by a cocktail of anti-depressant drugs. But watch a little longer and you will notice that the cocktail isn’t enough; they also require a chaser in the form of another pill that aids the anti-depressant drugs when they lose their effectiveness.
Advertising for drug companies has become something of the norm in America. During a 30 minute news program, I count no less than 12 commercials for drugs ranging from anti-depressants, to cholesterol-lowering statins, to drugs to treat erectile dysfunction. Each commercial urged you to “see your doctor right away to see if drug X is right for you!”
Creating a Market for Prescription Drugs
Thirty years ago, the condition called “high cholesterol” wasn’t much of a concern for anyone. Now, tens of millions of people suffer from the condition. Conveniently, there also happens to be a group of prescription drugs called “statins,” developed in 1996, that treat the condition. Statins are now the number one class of drugs prescribed and total more than $25 billion in sales each year.
Unfortunately, cholesterol has gotten such a bad rap recently that most people don’t know the good it does. It is essential for certain bodily functions like production of vitamin D and it makes up the outer coating of cells. There is evidence to support that a raised level of cholesterol in the blood is associated with an increased risk of future heart attacks and strokes. However, with otherwise healthy people it is unclear how much higher levels will increase that risk. What is clear is that having high cholesterol is only one factor of many that determines your future chance of developing heart disease.
High cholesterol attracts so much attention because there is now a group of drugs that can treat it. Pfizer devotes $271.9 million a year to promote its drug, Lipitor. By contrast, Anheuser Busch spent a reported $60 million on advertising their beer. Yet, as Ray Moynihan points out in his book, Selling Sickness, “there are much cheaper, safe, and effective ways to try to stay healthy than using statins.” He cites “improving diet, increasing exercise, and stopping smoking” as the well-known, obvious ways.
But a prescription for diet and exercise does not make drug companies rich. Instead, the drug companies pay for studies that produce the results they want. They then send drug representatives to doctor’s offices to hand out free samples and give other enticing offers to sway the doctor to prescribe their drug. The studies that indicate guidelines for prescribing statins have more than tripled the number of people who could be targeted with drug therapy.
In 1990, the National Institute of Health (NIH) determined that 13 million people may warrant treatment with statins. In 2001, a new study conducted found 36 million people might benefit from treatment. In that study 5 of the 14 experts, including the chair of the study, in some way were tied to the drug companies.
Worse yet, in 2004, that number was increased to 40 million by a new panel of experts. The 8 of the 9 “experts” were “paid speakers, consultants, or paid researchers of the major drug companies” according to Moynihan. Yet another study, conducted in 2013, found that the number of people eligible for drug therapy would increase (almost double) the 2004 study to 70 million people. The new guidelines recommended that someone with as low as a “7.5 percent risk of suffering a stroke or heart attack over the next decade be prescribed statin medication.”
When drug companies are funding studies and recommending treatment options, it creates a system where treatment is no longer based on hard scientific fact. As new “cures” are found new diseases are created. For example, restless leg syndrome wasn’t a disease until a drug was found to treat it. Another example is the reclassification of obesity as a disease because treatment options now exist.
Advertising to patients is just another prong that drug companies use to increase sales. People are bombarded with ads for prescription drugs every time they open a magazine or watch television. Patients regularly go to their doctor requesting whatever drug they were urged to seek out by the drug company in an ad. The result is the doctor becoming nothing more than a vending machine.