The Cures That Are Killing Us

The unbridled power of the pharmaceutical industry is creating a universally drugged society.

“There’s a pill for that.” “That’s not normal. You need medication.” “There has got to be an easier way.” “I wasn’t blessed with patience.” “I’m just not able to focus.” “It doesn’t come natural to me.” “I have the blahs. I’ll feel more motivated when it gets closer to summer.” “I just can’t get myself going. I’m stuck in a rut and I need something right now.” “I’m always so bored.” “The things that used to excite me just don’t anymore.” “I just have such a sweet tooth. I can’t stop.”

People kill themselves with a billion little reasons why it isn’t their fault they never live up to their own standards. They convince themselves that ability is innate, life is random, and outcomes are fixed. The good life will only be achieved by technology that will fix all our challenges for us, while equalizing any perceived deficiencies.

But all these little stories are lies we tell ourselves to protect our egos from harsh reality. Happiness is built from finding the right challenges and seeing them through. Its built from constant growth; from innovating, adapting, and overcoming. Fulfillment is the byproduct of pursuits that take time, not quick fixes. Motivation follows action, and then creates momentum, not the other way around.

Our desire for instant gratification is exploited and exacerbated for immeasurable profit by the pharmaceutical industry. In this week’s dive into the Saboteurs of Health in America, we will explore the bizarre, often evil world of Big Pharma, and the methods they use to make drug dependency commonplace.

The Devil Behind the Doctor’s Door

We must first concede that the pharmaceutical industry serves a purpose. While it is terribly broken and corrupt, it has also created medical breakthroughs, like lengthening lifespans of those with H.I.V., and effectively treating cancers such as leukemia. These miracles have created an environment in which we overlook or excuse the tremendous breaches of ethics that characterize the daily institutional practices of an industry best described as predatory.

Big pharma sells drugs. At times, these drugs are necessary to combat extreme acute pain, or chronic conditions with no natural solution. However, more often than not, American society looks to drugs to treat symptoms rather than causes, and create a quick fix. If other options are available, it is preferable not to introduce prescription drugs, which change brain chemistry and create dependency. Unfortunately, our social and medical climate promote a very different opinion.

The global pharmaceutical industry grosses 1 trillion dollars annually. The United States is by far the largest consumer, accounting for over 45% of global pharmaceutical sales. Apparently, with a higher standard of living comes a far higher need for drugs.

“Ask Your Doctor If Drugitall Is Right for You”

In Bad Pharma, Dr. Ben Goldacre addresses the methods used by drug manufacturers to trick doctors and create a veneer of safety and acceptance around drugs that are destroying lives. He explains:

“Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analyzed using techniques that are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments… When trials throw up results the companies don’t like, they are perfectly entitled to hide them from doctors and patients, so we only ever see a distorted picture of any drug’s true effects.”

The legal climate surrounding pharmaceuticals in the United States is exceedingly bizarre. The US and New Zealand are the only countries in the world that allow direct-to-consumer drug advertising including product claims. Ads convince us to go to the doctor and tell them we have some affliction and we want the drug that fixes it.

Shire pharmaceuticals, the producer of market leader Adderall (which was explicitly named to state their goal: ADD medication for all), created an extremely successful campaign to convince adults they had ADHD. For those adults who had worked themselves off of medication, doctors were coerced to advise their patients as to the benefits of lifelong medication. Adam Levine and other celebrities pointed adults to a quick quiz, certain to reveal that ADHD had been holding them back. Against the prevailing scientific wisdom that ADHD often went away in adulthood, they now claimed a phenomenon called “adult onset ADHD” was sweeping the nation.

Advertising often takes advantage of people’s desire to be socially conscious by creating a narrative that a tremendous number of poor souls have struggled their entire lives, afraid of the stigma attached to their disorder. Techniques such as these leave the American public with millions of contradictory messages, even from those doctors it trusts most. As Goldacre asserts:

“…After leaving medical school, doctors hear about what works ad hoc, from sales reps, colleagues, and journals. But those colleagues can be in the pay of drug companies—often undisclosed—and the journals are, too. And so are the patient groups. And finally, academic papers, which everyone thinks of as objective, are often covertly planned and written by people who work directly for the companies, without disclosure.”

It is not just that Big Pharma sells addictive drugs with serious side effects. They’ll stop at nothing to convince people that they have issues that don’t exist, and that they require drugs that aren’t safe, and don’t do what is claimed. They normalize introducing drugs with little benefit and great long-term cost. These companies use their massive financial power to grease politicians and muddy every study and every journal to the point where no one has a clue whether disorders are real or imagined, whether drug treatment is necessary or preferable, or what drugs actually work or not.

The Manufactured Epidemics

The late Dr. Keith Conners is credited with first characterizing and diagnosing ADHD. But in his book ADHD Nation, he diligently documented and analyzed years of data that led him to believe 5% or less of youth suffer from the disorder. As ADHD diagnoses became mainstream, about 600,000 children were medicated by 1990. Since that time, however, Connors noted a disturbing over-diagnosis. Currently, over 15% of high school students are diagnosed with ADHD, and over 3.5 million are medicated. “The numbers make it look like an epidemic,” Conners said in a 2013 interview. “Well it’s not. It’s preposterous. This is a concoction to justify the giving out of medication at unprecedented and unjustifiable levels.”

Before we conclude that a child’s “hyperactive” or “distracted” tendencies are a problem and toss pills at them, we would do well to consider the environment we place them in. Perhaps it is unreasonable to ask 7-year-olds to sit all day. Maybe moving, exploring, running, jumping, pushing, and playing is how kids learn best. Perhaps the child isn’t the problem, but instead an environment that bombards them with electronic stimulation at all hours of the day, and then completely ignores the needs of their physical bodies.

The consequences of rampant misdiagnosis aren’t reserved to middle school students who have their personalities medicated out of them. I’ve personally seen kids fake ADHD symptoms to score Adderall, Concerta, and other stimulants. In college, they called it “study candy,” and it’s abused with disturbing normality. Common consequences include insomnia, loss of appetite, hallucinations, and a general learned helplessness, where one believes themselves unable to cope without these drugs. In a few cases, these stimulants have created addiction, opened the door to other drug use, or eventually contributed to suicide.

Similarly, doctors have prescribed drugs containing opioids at alarming rates beginning in the 1990s. These extremely addictive drugs consumed the lives of many unsuspecting patients, far after the prescriptions ended. In 2015, over 30,000 people died from opioid-related overdoses, and almost half that were from prescriptions. Of those who abuse opioids, over 75% report starting with prescribed drugs. Often, prescriptions end and patients deal with extreme withdrawals. These are so painful that people will injure themselves to be prescribed more pain killers. When the prescriptions run out, people turn to the cheaper, far more easily available heroin.

Doctors and the public held a healthy fear of opioids, until an intense marketing campaign kicked off in the early 1990s. Suddenly, opioids went from uncommon interventions reserved for extreme circumstances and end of life, to a commonly-prescribed solution for everything from back pain to arthritis. There are circumstances where prescription opioids are necessary, but they are not anywhere near as commonplace as prescription rates would suggest. To focus solely on abuse of prescribed opioids is to ask the wrong question, according to Dr. Andrew Kolodny: “They were trying to stop kids from getting in Grandma’s medicine cabinet. No one was asking, ‘why does every Grandma now have opioids in her medicine cabinet?’”

Medicating Ourselves Into Mediocrity

These examples illustrate the power of the pharmaceutical industry’s brilliant manipulation of society. Big Pharma has succeeded in changing expectations to such a degree that we can scarcely conceive of a world where most people aren’t on medication. Despite not having access to these drugs for most of human history, we have come to believe they are necessary to function in the modern world. We think every small ache needs aspirin, every fever needs antibiotics, and that the only recourse for chronic discomfort is a lifelong drug habit.

Pharmaceutical drugs can be positive in individual circumstances. However, the overwhelming cultural prevalence of these drugs despite their dire consequences speaks to the warped mindset held by our standard model of society.

Many of the issues discussed in this series are clearly linked. ADHD rates skyrocket in concert with ubiquitous tech addiction that creates incessant distraction. Our sedentary lives and tech proliferation combine to create a tremendous increase in obesity and mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression, which we reflexively treat with with drugs. As technology creates the expectation for quick fixes, the pill becomes a more common and acceptable response to our challenges.

Rather than adopting daily meditation, exercise, and a disciplined approach to nutrition—rather than allowing these consequences to inform us about those pursuits that don’t serve us and spur us towards a better path—we opt for the band-aid.

We have come to perceive comfort and convenience as rights, and to abhor the idea of struggle and growth. For most parents, providing in excess and protecting from pain trump any ideas of preparation and creation of autonomous, ethical contributors to society. We’ve become so adept at masking or eliminating our obstacles that we have removed our potential to improve through the process of overcoming them. Pain, inconvenience, discomfort, and inability are simply nuisances that should no longer exist in the 21st century. There is something wrong, and a pill should be able to make it right. Our mental problems are unfair afflictions that we should be able to eradicate with a pill and a glass of water. These are our responses to the challenges presented by opulence and abundance, and they are slowly killing us, one by one.

We must reorient our mindset. Our struggles are the greatest blessings we’ll be offered. They are the opportunity to learn the lessons schools somehow neglect. They should kickstart our exploration into the conditions, beliefs, habits, and rituals that can create inspired living. Our weaknesses can become our strengths, as they expose the path to our greatest success, if we only strive through adversity. We can’t just medicate every problem. There are too many unknown consequences, and to do so strips us of the opportunity to grow and learn what we really need for a fulfilled life.

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