Anyone who watches American television has seen it; a woman stares out at a rainy day – her faced filled with anguish as a long list of possible side effects is listed for the anti-depression medication being advertised; an older, fatherly looking character explains how his cholesterol was significantly lowered by an amazing new statin; a young business professional is suddenly incredibly efficient now that his Adult Attention Deficit Disorder has been cured by a healthy dose of Adderall. The pharmaceutical industry markets to consumers quite well. As a result, it rakes in exorbitant revenues, year after year. Even during the 2008 financial crisis, these companies still boasted increasing profits. They were one of the only industries to actually experience economic growth during such turbulent economic times.
In 1997, the FDA in the United States effectively allowed direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs. Because of this, marketing expenditures have increased from $220 million in 1997 to over $2.8 billion in 2002. The industry has been accused of ‘disease mongering;’ a term used to describe the public promotion of various diseases and disorders in order to raise revenues and expand their consumer base. It is argued that advertising on prime time television creates a culture of medical anxiety, encouraging people to constantly seek the help of prescription medication to cure even the smallest of ailments. There are now more disorders and psychological issues than ever before, and you can always be sure that there will be a pill to ease any suffering. Marketing schemes by the pharmaceutical industry have created widespread social acceptance of the everyday use of powerful prescription medication. Television and media have picked up on the trend. Anyone who has watched House or, god forbid, The Real Housewives series, cannot help but note the comical references to popping pain killers. Serious addiction has become a punchline – the constantly sedated housewife is used as comic relief and the caution with which prescription drugs should be taken is dangerously perverted.
Some disturbing trends in the non-medical use of prescription medication have recently been noted. Much research has confirmed the relationship between an increase in prescribing products which contain hydrocodone and oxycodone and the increased prevalence in their non-medical use and related emergency room visits. Vicodin and OxyContin are the two main drugs which account for the increased use of prescription pain pills for non-medical purposes. Between 1999 and 2002, deaths from overdose attributed to illegal substances such as heroin and cocaine increased 12% and 23%, respectively. This can be compared to the 91% increase in fatal overdoses resulting from prescription opioid analgesics. In the United States, legal medications now replace illicit drugs as the most common cause of fatal overdoses and the non-medical use of prescription drugs has increased 81% between 1992 and 2003.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse has attributed this increase in the non-medical use of prescription drugs to ‘significant increases in the number of prescriptions, significant increases in drug availability, aggressive marketing by the pharmaceutical industry, the proliferation of illegal internet pharmacies and a greater social acceptability of medicating a growing number of conditions.’ Because prescription medication is legal, it does not ignite the same caution and fear which illicit substances garner. Everyone in high school was taught about the dangers of cocaine and heroin, but the drugs in your parents’ medicine cabinet never received the same attention. A pill prescribed by a doctor appears much safer than the crack being sold on the corner of Hastings and Main in Vancouver’s downtown east side. However, when legal prescription medications are overused or abused there is not a great difference. It is this distorted attitude about the use of legal drugs which fosters the terrible and tragic consequences that are unfortunately on the rise.
– Joey Shea