Big Pharma: Do You Often Experience Pain, Dizziness, or the Urge to Take Drugs You Don't Need?

Those of you who know me are probably aware of my long-standing hatred of doctors. I think it started when one looked down his nose at me, diagnosed me with fleas (when I really had a fever, mild blood-poisoning, and staph infection) and told I ought to take better care of my cats (to this day I have never owned even one cat). This was before ushering me out the door with a perscription for flea cream. Thanks, doc. There have been various -- indeed much worse -- incidents since, but it was at that moment that I realized that being doctor doesn't necessarily mean you can tell the difference between a sick person and plain old itchy one. So, it wasn't shocking when, a few years later, I discovered that all the faith I'd had in pharmaceuticals was equally unfounded.

Mostly, the realization came through seeing too many ads on tv, getting curious, and looking into what was going on. What I found out was that there's a lot of ground to cover when you're talking about big pharma and why they are more-or-less evil incarnate, so I will try to break it down as best I can. Moreover, I think I have found the reason why Dr. McFleas was so vastly insipid as to imagine I had a common feline ailment, but I'll explain that in an upcoming post (this subject will be basis for a few posts because of the volume of information).

But, for now, let's start with the obvious:

Advertising to the Public

Alright, so you're sitting at home, watching some Grey's, or whatever shameful innocuous drama it is that you watch, and we cut to commercial. Suddenly: Are you too fat? Are you too thin? Does something on you hurt? Do you occasionally experience emotion?!!? There's a pill for that!

There's a reason why for most of the 90s and early 2000s the combined profits of the top ten pharmaceutical companies exceeded the combined profits of the other 490 Fortune 500 companies. There's a reason why big American drug companies have a profit margin of about 17%, where 3.1% is considered high. There's a reason why in Germany today a typical glass of drinking water contains anywhere between 30 and 60 antibiotics, hormones, pain killers, chemo chemicals, etc. Why?

Because, overwhelmingly, our global society believes that pills are a cure-all answer. And a big part of the reason we think that is advertising. Every year, 4.2 billion dollars are spent on advertising drugs directly to consumers. Mostly, the money is spent on advertisements which "brand" pills, or create an emotional bond between the consumer and the product. For example, let's look at this Nexium ad:

Alright, so, for the first 15 seconds of this 1 minute ad, we have no indication that we're being offered a pill. We've got an all-American dad, "the Finisher" who runs his family, gets things done, lives the upper-middle class ideal. The way he bursts down the hall with a puffed out chest is more than a little reminiscient of Superman. The first thing that's being sold isn't a pill, it's a persona, a lifestyle. Nexium isn't just about heartburn, then. It's about being a successful man and a good dad.

Then we find out about what the pill supposedly does. And the side effects: his doctor did say that headache, diarrhea, and abdominal pain could be side effects of Nexium. But let's not dwell on this for too long! We quickly move on to a picture of him and the kids are hanging out on the immaculate lawn in front of a picture perfect treehouse. (And, p.s., did any of you have a treehouse like that growing up? I mean, I wasn't the only one with a structurally unsound hodgepodge of 2" by 4"s in a tree, was I?)

So basically, we have viable ad for a pill sandwiched between two montages that have absolutely nothing to do with medicine. They are there to create a brand identity and sell a lifestyle.

It's an effective tool, because every year hundreds of people walk into their doctor's office with a list of meds that they're interested in. The way we are told to feel about Nexium is as much about fatherhood as it is about acid reflux. Whether or not we actually NEED these drugs becomes irrelevant: I mean, women have apparently asked for Viagra and Cialis. Not the way that works, ladies!

But there's a lot more going on than just the obvious branding advertisements we see everyday.

Other forms of advertising

Let's talk about the other stuff, the advertising we don't know about. There's a lot of stuff we just don't see, but, make no mistake about it, it's there, it's impacting our lives, and drug companies are spending a truckload of money on it. The target? Doctors.


Somewhere between 11% and 50% of the articles in any given major medical journal will be written by, you guessed it, big pharma. Industry workers write articles and then pay doctors to submit these articles to journals under their names, as if they had written them. These articles are more favourable toward the drug in question by an 8:1 margin. "Cialis is so badass! Medically speaking, this is the most badass drug of all time. 100% guarenteed to increase badassitude with no ill effects. Perscribing this drug means that your badass too!" Other doctors then read these articles and perscribe the drug, not being fully aware of its success rates, side effects, etc. The result? The world gets screwed.

Making Laws

Big Pharma doesn't merely obey laws; they make them too. This is because they can afford to hire lobbyists. In 2003, big pharma had 675 lobbyists in Washington, which is more than 1 per congressman. Moreover, in 1992 the Perscription Drug User Fee Act was passed, which allowed drug companies to pay the FDA in order to speed up drug approval (I'm not saying the FDA couldn't speed things up a little, or a lot, but in such a way that they agree to do a lousy job in order to pad their pockets). Drug companies and the current forms of government making friends = no good for consumers.

"Educating" Medical Students and Doctors

This is a HUGE issue in the pharmaceutical industry. You know when you walk into the doctor's office, and he or she looks like a pharmaceutical float? The Ambien pen, the Septra pad, the Xanax lancer, the Lipitor coat? Yes? That's the result of sales reps! Yes, there are sales reps who visit your doctor in order to pump their companies drugs.

Overwhelmingly, the reps are young, flirty, good-looking women. These reps are employed to bring doctors lunch, remember the names of their wives and kids, their birthdays... Basically, it's all about making the doctor feel special. What's more, these reps have huge expense accounts; friendly bribes are commonplace.

One example: a former drug rep, Phyllis Adams, arranged a $35,000 "unrestricted educational grant" for a doctor... it was used to put a swimming pool in his backyard. No joke.

According to another former rep, ten minutes with a doctor means that your market share is going to go through the roof. In other words, that doctor is going to start perscribing your drug a lot more, because gee, aren't those people at GlaxoSmithKline nice? That's great for the company, but not necessarily great for the people who are being put on meds that they don't need, or meds that they could get for cheaper, or these meds instead of those meds, which would actually work better for them.

But it doesn't stop with the wisened old doctors; now big pharma has moved in on med students... I'll be talking about that and other facets of big pharma in my next post.

Also, fyi, most of the facts for this post are coming from James Winter's "Lies the Media tell Us" and the documentary "Big Bucks, Big Pharma," which is available to watch at

posted by Ashley Girty @ 2:41 PM,


At March 14, 2009 at 11:57 AM, Blogger NICOLE M said...

excellent post, this highlights why doctors look at you the way they do when you're asking about herbal, traditional or alternative remedies. this deconstruction of the advertising used for meds really touches on the cyclical nature of the issue. We are told we need pills for X "disorder" or problem that could be "fixes" and then given a list of side effects that in turn we have to take more pills to subside them. GAHH!

At March 14, 2009 at 3:24 PM, Blogger Ashley Girty said...

haha, for sure! there are a whole bunch of really effective natural alternatives that so few people know about, just because they're natural and, hence, cannot be patented, and, hence, do not turn a profit for anyone. it's sad that we take so many things that are bad to useless, just because they can make someone money.

At July 8, 2010 at 10:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm also a person who believes that nature has a remedy for any condition or sickness we suffer. I'm sure that for any illness there is a plant that can heal that specific condition, same applies for generic viagra, there's gotta be a plant or flower that works for that male condition.


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