Is Big Pharma Selling You Sickness?

Mar 18, 2020

If a drug manufacturer wants to sell a medication, wouldn’t it behoove them to make you believe you needed it?

It may sound sinister, but that’s the concept behind what is known as “selling sickness” or “disease mongering.” These terms refer to the practice of:

Making it easier to diagnose people with a disease by:

  • Redefining a typical human experience as something that is pathologic and needs treatment
  • Defining symptoms so broadly and vaguely that many people believe they are suffering from it
  • Encouraging people to recognize symptoms that may not be present
  • Minimizing side effects of medication

Actively promoting disease in order to sell more medications through:

  • Awareness campaigns that show that people are “suffering without knowing it” (encouraging self-diagnosis). These campaigns may also show that doctors are failing to spot a certain disease in patients, which incites fear and promotes self-diagnosis.
  • Marketing diseases direct to customers (who then pressure/encourage their doctor to diagnose them)
  • Using “miracle language” to show extreme cases of suffering that were remedied quickly and totally by the medication (ignoring a large spectrum of other users who may not have had this experience)
  • Funding disease advocacy groups and disease foundations
  • Creating support groups

If this sounds like something from a twisted movie plot, consider this real-life example that might be classified as “selling sickness.”

GlaxoSmithKline and Restless Leg Syndrome

Medication: Ropinrole

A GlaxoSmithKline drug called ropinrole had already been approved for treating Parkinson’s disease when the drug maker launched a campaign to promote a new ailment known as “restless legs syndrome.”

Restless Leg Syndrome

An uncomfortable feeling in your leg that causes you to want to move it around. Restless leg is worse at night and at times in the day when your leg is at rest. Movement provides relief.

GlaxoSmithKline had been testing the drug for effectiveness in relieving the symptoms of restless leg syndrome, and in 2005, they received FDA approval to market it for this purpose. But a couple of years before that approval was obtained, the drug maker was already making presentations to various U.S. medical societies and sending out press releases—all in an effort to familiarize medical providers and the general public with this new syndrome.

They also generated press releases about studies on this alternate use for ropinrole, which were internally funded and, at the time the releases circulated, unpublished.

Since then, the restless leg syndrome campaign has become a multi-million dollar international push—bankrolled largely by GlaxoSmithKline.

…And that’s not all

The efforts to sell sickness don’t stop with restless leg syndrome. Drug makers have followed similar patterns in hyping testosterone deficiency, erectile dysfunction, adult attention deficit disorder, and hypoactive sexual desire disorder.

While many Americans may suffer from these conditions, others are diagnosed when their symptoms are typical and barely worthy of a label.

How the media compounds the problem

Headlines about health are always big sellers. Compound that with a story that suggests there’s a new and unrecognized disease lurking within us that doctors are failing to catch. It’s novel, relevant, and laced with intrigue. No wonder the news is falling all over itself to hype these new diseases.

The problem is that they don’t always get the facts right. In many instances, newspapers will accept press releases from drug makers without investigating the research behind them. This can lead to their being swayed more by anecdotal evidence than research-based evidence.

In addition, drug makers can curate information in their communications. They may downplay the side effects of a drug or fail to include long-term studies that contain helpful information about the potency of a drug over time as well as lingering side effects. If the media isn’t willing to dig deeper, they may portray an incomplete picture.

Finally, driven to sensationalism, the media may exaggerate the seriousness of a disease, focusing on the worst-case-scenarios. This can alarm people and push them toward treatment, even if they only have a mild case of the illness that may not benefit from drug use.

How can you see through disease mongering and protect your health?

Because our health is in their hands, we want to believe that drug makers and healthcare providers have our best interest in mind. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Here are some tips to ensure that you are not being “sold sickness.”

Learn more about the disease

Read up on the symptoms and ensure that they are appropriately specific—not a vague, catch-all list.

Be wary of prevalence estimates

These can easily be exaggerated to make it seem as though more people are suffering from the disease than actually are. These estimates may include people who have a very mild case of the disease and would not benefit from treatment.

Find out who’s funding what

Is there an advocacy group or foundation for the disease? Ask questions to find out who started the group or who’s funding the group. Be cautious if you learn that it is too closely tied to the drug maker, and remember that organizations that claim to be non-profit may be heavily subsidized by a drug manufacturer.

Check the stats

Are they the result of studies that meet the gold-standard of research—with double-blind, placebo-controlled trials? And do they include follow-up studies so that you can see the results of the medication long-term and rule out side effects that may surface later?

Ask your doctor questions

Though many healthcare providers’ primary goal is to safeguard your health, some are influenced to over-diagnose or over-treat in a way that pads their bottom line. If your doctor gives you a diagnosis or prescribes a treatment or medication that doesn’t sit right with you, don’t be afraid to ask why. And if you aren’t happy with the answers you’re getting, seek out a second opinion before proceeding.

Carefully consider the side effects

Since drug companies have been known to whitewash side effects in their promotional materials, you must be a careful consumer. Examine the clinical trials, and compare the side effects of those in the drug use group against those in the comparison group.

Don’t jump on the bandwagon

Just because “everybody is taking it” doesn’t mean that you also need to take the drug—especially if the benefits for your health will be outweighed by the potential side effects.

There’s a rousing debate on either side of the “selling sickness” issue. We’ve shared some common beliefs about drug companies going out of bounds in trying to expand their market, but others contend that they are simply raising awareness of concerning health problems.

We’ll leave it up to you to decide where you fall on that spectrum, but regardless of your stance, we recommend the tips above as universally smart practices for making the best health care decisions possible.

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