The Business of Health: Pathological Propaganda

Would you trust a drug if you knew how much marketing effort was behind it—how much even doctors have been influenced through business tactics that have little to do with science?


You’re watching TV. Your eyes are engorged with bright images of happy people running through fields of flowers. For a moment, you feel frozen in a box of seductive intrigue—the life you wish you had, perhaps… Then names like these surface on the screen: PAXIL. VIAGRA. PROZAC. LUNESTA. Sometimes, old drugs are even re-marketed to satisfy the latest pathologized craze…Prozac re-packaged as “Sarafem,” for instance, to treat the alleged female ailment, “PMDD.” 

Many disorders seem to be based on a vague collection of symptoms; behaviours that were not seen as abnormal in the past have become studies in pathology. For instance, a collection of “restless symptoms” have come to characterize Adult ADD; the trait of “extreme shyness” has been the hallmark of a potential Social Anxiety Disorder diagnosis.

I came across some good examples of the power of pathologizing while watching the documentary, Big Bucks, Big Pharma: Marketing Disease and Pushing Drugs, released in 2006. It explores the influential interplay between drug company sales representatives, doctors, and consumer advertising. It exposes the power of Big Pharma’s wealth, and the angles at which they approach marketing.

What I learned from watching this film is that health ideas shift with profit. Some of the guest speakers discussed the re-marketing of old drugs for new conditions (drugs that otherwise would lose their value due to patent laws). It is surprisingly common practice in the pharmaceutical industry to re-engineer the look and name of an old product, as well as its promise of efficacy. The consumer pays a premium for these supposedly “new and improved products.” This was the case with the drug, Sarafem, in the re-marketing of the antidepressant, Prozac. Not only was drug company, Eli Lilly, able to retain its patent—they found a whole new market that had not even existed, as “PMDD” was previously unheard of.

An even better example—that more explicitly illuminates the blurry line between the invention of new disorders, and the creation of “new drugs”—is with the antidepressant, Paxil, and its use in treating Social Anxiety Disorder. Here is a quote from Barry Brand, a product director of Paxil:

“Every marketer’s dream is to find an unidentified or unknown market and develop it. That’s what we were able to do with Social Anxiety Disorder.” ( Time slot 23:00, Big Bucks, Big Pharma: Marketing Disease and Pushing Drugs, 2006)

blair scott

Blair Scott is a Professional Writing student at Algonquin College, who loves writing poetry. In recent times, she has become interested in the analysis of various sources of health literature, and how consumers come to terms with this multitude of information. Blair currently works at a health food store, but aspires to become a freelance contract writer and editor.