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America and the Magic Pill

My friend and co-worker strolled in through the kitchen door wearing a stressed, concerned look, fashionably late for his shift once again. It was different than his standard hungover, please don’t make me chop the onions look, so I asked him what was up.

He explained that he had gone to the doctor because he felt like his heart was racing and he had been experiencing tightness in his chest.

The doctor diagnosed him with an anxiety disorder and promptly prescribed medication.

This was disconcerting to me, because I knew my friend’s habits did not exactly paint a picture of healthy living. He was 21 years old. He drank well over a dozen alcoholic beverages every night. He worked out ferociously every day, drinking protein shakes to supplement his routine. He ate almost exclusively at the restaurant where we cooked (largely fried food, butter, and salt). His sleep schedule was erratic, usually came in the form of passing out drunk somewhere, and was often limited to just a few hours a night.

My friend did not stop drinking, change his eating habits, or commit himself to getting more sleep. But he did start taking his prescribed pills, adding one more chemical to a body deluged with them. A couple weeks later they tried a different pill.

Now, I concede that doctors know far more about this stuff than I, but I couldn’t help but question the wisdom of looking at this kid’s particular situation and deciding a pill was the best solution to his problems. It seemed to me that it might have been wise to address his lifestyle first.

Now I don’t mean to deter people from going to the doctor when something doesn’t feel right, but rather to question the quickness with which we seek and get prescribed drugs that dramatically alter the operation of our bodies.

I’ve had several other friends in their early 20s and teens who have gone to doctors or psychiatrists and been given powerful, mood-altering medications after a single consultation.

Often the lifestyles of these friends are much like the one mentioned earlier, with severe drug addictions and financial problems added to the mix.

But my friends, and their prescribers, are rarely interested in addressing the root causes of their problems.

This is America after all, land of the Magic Pill, where we bank on stumbling into some cure down the road for everything that ails us, rather than avoiding the problem in the first place.

Global warming? No worries, we’ll be able to colonize a new planet by the time it gets out of hand. Running low on fossil fuels? Someone will just invent a new fuel source, no need to conserve. Can’t afford a car, house, or that third DVD player for the bedroom? Just take on debt, because surely there’s a raise on the way.

Sadly, we take this same short-sighted approach to our health, punishing ourselves today with the comfort of knowing the emergency room will be there to bail us out tomorrow.

We take weight-loss pills for obesity rather than exercising. We take vitamins to get the nutrients we need instead of eating right. We invest billions of dollars every year in attempts to come up with cures and treatments for diabetes, heart disease and cancer, but we cut preventative programs back or out entirely, like physical education in our schools.

To steal from the wise Chris Rock, the money’s not in avoiding the illness in the first place, it’s in the treatment. Nobody makes any money if we don’t get sick, and the drug companies now go to great lengths to convince us we are.

Drug companies used to advertise predominantly to hospitals and doctors, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) changed its guidelines for television advertising in 1997, spurring a spectacular increase in drug commercials. Last year, the pharmaceutical industry spent $4 billion on direct-to-consumer advertising, five times more than was spent in 1995.

As a result, Americans are buying more pills than ever, but not for cancer, diabetes, or heart disease. We’re buying sleeping pills, the use of which has increased 50 percent since 2001, with over 43 million prescriptions filled last year. Now it seems you don’t know how sick you are until a commercial tells you. That’s good medicine.

Most of us assume there are strict laws for how these drugs are advertised on television, but there aren’t.

They’re only vetted once they’ve been on the air, often resulting in drug ads making false claims for months before getting changed or pulled. As if making medical decisions wasn’t complicated enough, now we’re sold medicine with the same strategies that sell cars, soda and cereal. I feel better already.

Health care costs skyrocket while the pharmaceutical industry becomes the most profitable in the world, and we’re assured by politicians and industry executives that this profit-driven system rewards us with the best care, the best medicine, and the most innovative drugs on the planet.

But why then does the industry now spend much more on marketing and administration than on research and development?

And why do these companies seem to be more interested in repackaging old medicines to sell as something new rather than providing life-saving products that would save billions in emergency rooms costs, like flu vaccines?

A FDA report revealed that of 78 drugs approved for use in 2002, only 17 contained new active ingredients, and only seven were classified by the FDA as likely improvements over drugs already on the market. Of those seven, none came from a major American drug company, but we’re constantly told that our market-driven health care system results in innovation that socialized medicine lacks.

Well, innovative marketing maybe.

So we watch the ads, buy the drugs, and complain about our health care costs as we do it, likely at the bar, downing beer and mammoth portions of fries and cheese.