Serious, Sometimes Fatal Events May Occur: Why Do We Take So Many Drugs?

I like to flip through the channels when watching the evening news. The other night while practicing my thumb aerobics, I noticed that the exact same commercial was on two of the networks at the exact same time. That surprised me a bit.

What didn't shock me was that it was an ad for a prescription drug.

So I decided to start paying attention. It seemed that at least half of the advertisements were for pharmaceuticals.

I also noticed that I must have at least half a dozen things seriously wrong with me and should be heavily medicated. If I could just learn to ignore the fact that I feel fine, I might have some hope for recovery.

No, seriously, we are being turned into a nation of neurotic hypochondriacs. From what I can, tell those of us who watch the evening news are really, really sick. We need lots of drugs for our blood pressure, erectile dysfunction, depression, asthma, more erectile dysfunction, hair loss, blood clots, Alzheimer's, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, yet more erectile dysfunction, fibromyalgia, arthritis, bladder control, enlarged prostate, the dreaded chronic dry eye, even more erectile dysfunction and worst of all -- the single most horrible scourge of our modern lives -- short eyelashes. Good thing some company spent years of research and testing to develop a cure for that!

Yes, I viewed advertisements for cures to all of these ailments in a matter of days.

I remember back when Walter Cronkite and Huntley-Brinkley didn't peddle drugs. I always thought it was because it was illegal, but it wasn't.

Because the FDA required full disclosure of all of a drug's effects to be included in advertising, print was the only viable medium for all of that information. The pharmaceutical companies pitched their products in professional journals and magazines, focusing their campaigns toward doctors.

In the 1980s, money began to flow from the drug manufacturers into direct-to-consumer advertising. Originally this was applauded by consumer advocates as a way for more information to reach patients, but then in 1997, the FDA relaxed the disclosure rules for ads. Instead of requiring all details to be disclosed in an ad, now only what the FDA deemed as "serious" or "common" side effects had to be disclosed in a broadcast advertisement, the details could be made available elsewhere. This brought about the "See our ad in Horse and Hound Magazine for more information" disclosures.

Still, the ads sounded kind of bad with all of those nasty side effects included, so the drug makers used a loophole. Reminder ads use simple name recognition by repeating the brand name over and over again. A common tactic was the "Ask your doctor if this drug is right for you" approach. As long as the commercial never stated what the drug was for, those pesky side effects need not be revealed. The pharmaceutical companies used them with a vengeance.

I suppose the theory was that people want what they see on TV, even if they have absolutely no idea what it is.

Once the names of the drugs were sufficiently beaten into our brains, the companies began revealing the vile consequences of consuming their products. We've now been completely desensitized to the point that ads routinely mention "possible death" and "sometimes fatal events" as a side effect; we Americans continue to rush out and ask our doctors to give us these pills regardless.

Are the pharmaceutical companies no longer concerned about the public's aversion to horrible side effects? These fast-talking laundry lists of the dismal things that might happen if we consume their products should put us off -- but we continue to consume. Even when the cure is worse than the disease, Americans seem convinced that we need more and more pills.

I believe an attitude of "it must be good if it's strong enough to kill me" has developed. Personally, I'm not wasting any of my hard-earned money on a chronic dry eye potion that can't at least put me in a coma.

The end result of this? Americans are now by far the most medicated people on the planet. Around 130 million folks take a prescription drug every month. More than 125,000 Americans die annually from prescription drug reaction and mistakes each year, representing the nation's forth leading killer. That's three times the number that die in car accidents.

Are the ads behind this? Pharmaceutical manufacturers do spend a surprising amount more on marketing than research.

"We are taking way too many drugs for dubious or exaggerated ailments. What the drug companies are doing now is promoting drugs for long-term use to essentially healthy people."

I didn't make that up, Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, said it.

A September 2010 report from the Center for Disease Control reveals some alarming statistics. In the month prior to the survey, at least one prescription drug was taken by:

  • 48 percent of Americans
  • One of every five American children
  • 9 out of 10 older Americans
  • 88.4 percent of Americans age 60 and over used at least one prescription drug, more than 76 percent used two or more in the past month and 37 percent used five or more
  • In 2008, $234.1 billion was spent in the United States on prescription drugs -- more than double what was spent in 1999 

How could we possibly need all of these drugs? Are we that much sicker than we were a couple decades ago?

Wait, maybe taking all of these pills makes us more healthy. Not by a long shot. Chronic diseases are way up. All the better to sell more pills, to the tune of more than 4 billion prescriptions written in 2011 alone.

America is nearly alone in this insanity. New Zealand is the only other country on the planet that allows this direct-to-consumer advertising of drugs.

A side effect of direct-to-consumer advertising is the financial incentive to the pharmaceutical industry to market new drugs as remedies for all sorts of maladies, including ones they were never intended to treat. They are literally selling the side effects now. For example, the drug Latisse -- initially tested to treat glaucoma -- is now being marketed to improve eyelash growth. To complicate the situation more, there are side effects to the side effect that is Latisse.

A while back I made up the dreaded Periodic Interrupted Sleep Syndrome (P.I.S.S.) in a sarcastic effort to point out the absurdity of the syndrome society that we have become. Now, I seriously expect to see an ad for a new drug to treat it any day. I'll be flipping through the channels (which I've discovered means I have adult ADD and need immediate medication) and there it will be.

On two channels at once... right after a news story about a new drug.

YOUR TURN: You've heard what I've had to say. What's your take?

testPromoTitleReplace testPromoDekReplace Join HuffPost Today! No thanks.