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6 Kinds of Pills Big Pharma Tries to Get You Hooked on for Life

Since direct-to-consumer drug advertising debuted in the late 1990s, the number of people on prescription drugs for life has ballooned.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Adam Michal Ziaja

 
 
 
 

Why has Big Pharma failed to produce new antibiotics for deadly infections like MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), VRE (vancomycin-resistant enterococci), C. Difficile and Acinetobacter baumannii even as they leap from hospital to community settings? Because there is no money in it.

Pharma executives "have shown less interest in medicines like antibiotics that actually cure disease than in those that only treat symptoms," writes Melody Petersen, author of Our Daily Meds. "Most blockbusters are pills for conditions such as anxiety, high cholesterol or constipation that must be taken daily, often for months or years. They are designed for rich Americans who can afford to buy them." Nor are medicines for tropical diseases like malaria, which kills a child every 30 seconds, a priority, notes Petersen. They also lack ka-ching.

Since direct-to-consumer drug advertising debuted in the late 1990s, the number of people on prescription drugs -- especially prescription drugs for life -- has ballooned. Between 2001 to 2007 the percentage of adults and children on one or more prescriptions for chronic conditions rose by more than 12 million, reports the Associated Press and 25 percent of US children now take a medication for a chronic condition. Seven percent of kids take two or more daily drugs. Who says advertising doesn't work?

Of the  top-selling drugs in 2011, led by Lipitor, Nexium, Plavix, Advair Diskus, Abilify, Seroquel, Singulair and Crestor, none is taken occasionally, or "as needed" and the treatment goal is never to get off the drug, like an antibiotic. Why would Pharma deal itself out of the game?

There are two ways Pharma hooks the US public on prescriptions for life. First, prescriptions that used to be taken as needed for pain, anxiety, GERD (gastroesophageal reflux), asthma, mood problems, migraines and even erectile dysfunction, gout and retroviruses (in some cases) are now full-time medicines. Instead of having a bad day or heartburn, you have a disease like anxiety or GERD which calls for full pharmaceutical artillery. Instead of having body pain to be treated transiently, you are put on an antidepressant like Cymbalta or seizure drug like Lyrica or Neurontin indefinitely.

Secondly, many of the top-selling drugs today are to prevent chronic conditions like high cholesterol, high blood pressure and osteoporosis that people are said to be "at risk" for. Needless to say, in both cases, people never know if the drugs are working or whether they would have had symptoms without them. This creates a loyal customer who is afraid to quit a prescription because it might be working. And why should they quit anyway when a third party is probably paying?

Here are some drugs -- not all -- that are marketed for perpetuity.

1. ADHD and Drugs for Pediatric 'Psychopathologies'

Thanks to Pharma's "diagnose early" and screening campaigns, millions of children are treated with stimulants for ADHD and antipsychotics for bipolar disorder and assorted conduct, oppositional defiant, development disorders and "spectrums" today. No wonder Michael Bandick, brand manager for Eli Lilly's popular antipsychotic Zyprexa, called it " the molecule that keeps on giving" at a national sales meeting.

But giving kids daily drugs creates two problems. First, parents will never know if their kids would have outgrown their conditions, and second, it's unlikely they'll ever get "clean." In fact, Pharma marketers worry about the  revenue threat of kids going off their meds when they leave home and even run an ad campaigns in college newspapers to keep them on. One ad shows the lead singer of Maroon 5, declaring, "I remember being the kid with ADHD. Truth is, I still have it." The ad's tag line reads, "It's Your ADHD. Own It."

 
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