Long before the Internet and direct to consumer advertising, the medical profession tried to reassure people about their health concerns. Sure fatigue and headaches could be a symptom of a brain tumor; sure a cough could be a symptom of lung cancer–but most doctors tried to assuage not sow fear. Remember “take two aspirins and call me in the morning”?
Flash forward to today’s online “symptom checkers,” quizzes to see if you have a certain disease and exhortations to see your doctor even though you feel fine. Once Pharma discovered that health fears and even hypochondria sell drugs, there seems to be no end to the new diseases, symptoms and risks people need to worry about.
Selling symptoms to suggestible people has been a gold mine for Big Pharma since it started advertising directly to the consumer around the late 1990s. Thanks to such marketing which actually “sells” diseases to build demand, millions of people who were once fine now have depression, insomnia, season allergies, GERD and assorted attention, pain and spectrum disorders. Worse, they want these afflictions because the medications that treatthem have been made so glamorous.
In fact the public’s embrace of prescription drugs is best expressed in the T shirt that says “I take aspirin for the headache caused by the Zyrtec I take for the hayfever I got from Relenza for the uneasy stomach from the Ritalin I take for the short attention span caused by the Scopoderm I take for the motion sickness I got from the Lomotil I take for the diarrhea caused by the Xenical for the uncontrolled weight gain from the Paxil I take for the anxiety from Zocor I take for my high cholesterol because exercise, a good diet and regular chiropractic care are just too much trouble.” (Of course the shirt cannot be worn by a small person.)
Here are some of the ways Pharma uses fear to keep the public buying drugs.
Fear of Aging and Losing Sex Appeal
Hormone replacement therapy which millions of women took until about ten years ago was officially marketed to stop hot flashes and keep their bones strong. But unofficially it was marketed as a way of staying young and sexy. Early HRT ads told women they had “outlived their ovaries” and not kept up with their husbands who wanted younger looking women. When HRT was found to increase the risk of heart attacks and cancer (sorry about that), bone drugs took up Pharma’s “don’t get old” message to women, pushed by former Today show host Meredith Vieira, former Charlie’s Angel Cheryl Ladd and actress Sally Field. Now Pharma is telling men they also need hormone replacement therapy for their “Low T” and to retain their sexiness. Male HRT doesn’t look safer than women’s.
Fear of Symptoms That Seem Benign
Once upon a time people with heartburn took Tums, Alka Seltzer, Bromo Seltzer or Maalox and vowed not to eat so much. They did not worry they really had Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), were on their way to cancer of the esophagus and take proton pump inhibitors for the rest of their lives. Similarly, while depression certainly exists, people who have the blues over real things like their marriage, finances or even the loss of a loved one now go running to the doctors for “happy pills” for their “depression.” Of course Pharma’s biggest success in creating fear around benign symptoms is convincing parents and teachers that healthy energetic kids are suffering from ADHD. Ka-ching.