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Can You Swallow This?

by Ken Root

I helped a man get up off the floor of his home after falling.  He seemed to be fine once we got him back in his chair but he was taken to the doctor and told that his medicine was causing his blood pressure to drop when he stood up.  The doctors checked his medications and found that he was taking nineteen different “pills” each day as prescribed to him by other doctors over the last few years.  I remain puzzled over our propensity to chase a simple cure to our ailments and the industry we’ve created to improve our health.

If you watch television it becomes obvious that pharmaceutical companies have a financial incentive to convince us to ask our physicians for a multitude of medications.  I am now aware that there is a drug to control everything from toenail fungus to flatulence.  I have both of these but don’t feel they are life threatening if I keep my socks on and go outside alone occasionally.  As one who has spent years doing television programs, it is amazing the amount of work that goes into producing these advertisements.  They don’t just have a spokesperson stand up and talk about a product like the cold and flu spots of the past.  Now it is animated or in a forest full of flowers and birds.  A condition that causes puffiness will be shown in an animated scene where everything is inflated and a little car is floating down a road that looks like a pillow.  If the power of suggestion works, you may believe you have that condition just by watching it.  Another has an elephant following a man who has COPD and another has the big bad wolf and grandchildren to draw attention to the problem of shortness of breath.

We all remember the first minute of these lengthy (and expensive) commercials but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires truth in revealing the side effects of the medication.  That is also stated, in a matter of fact way, sometime later in the commercial.  I learned, to my shock, that most of these drugs can kill you or interact with another drug which will kill you.  The lesser effects, also verbalized, may be consequences that sound very uncomfortable or embarrassing.  Of course, there is the famous “four-hour erection” disclaimer for Viagra, which sounds more like a lofty goal rather than a danger.

No matter the media that delivers the message, the desired result by the drug company is to get consumers to go to their doctors and ask for a product by name.  TV advertising is only the latest generation of marketing to gain this effect.  Big Pharma has appealed to doctors directly in every manner that could be imagined to the point the American Medical Association had to set guidelines as to what a physician could accept in compensation or honorarium for prescribing a product.  The last generation of savvy marketing started at Panera’s or other restaurants who would prepare food for drug sales representatives to take to doctor’s offices and set up in the break room so nurses and doctors could pop in for a free lunch and a bit of pleasant indoctrination about new products. Those tactics were generally blackballed by the AMA so now the companies are taking the game directly to the very small percentage of people who can get a prescription for a very expensive drug.

The financial gain in this enterprise is only surpassed by the gullibility of health care consumers.  We come from people who were tough and only took medicine, or visited a doctor, when they were near death.  We have come a long way from ancestors who chewed the bark of Willow trees, which contained the active ingredient in aspirin, to gain relief from an ailment.  Now we believe we just have to pop a pill and the problem is corrected.  You can even find pills that counteract other medications so one can work on your joint pain while the other allows your intestines to work properly.  The commercial promoting this product features a blue snail that simulates the process of elimination in more detail that I’d like to see.

If we put only a fraction of the drug advertising budget into promotion of nutrition and good eating practices, how much more cost effective would that be?  Instead there is hope we can find drugs to control obesity and prescribe them.

I am fearful that the cost of maintaining our healthcare system is going to swallow our economy.  I was in Costa Rica a few years ago and learned that they have totally government funded medical care.  It costs them twenty-three percent of their total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to provide it.  They also have an educational system, from pre-kindergarten through college, that is paid by government.  It costs twenty-one percent of their GDP.  The result, as I witnessed, is a population that is healthy, educated and poor.  They live in small, tin roofed houses with little ability to gain wealth.  The country is made up of pleasant pacifists with little motivation to do anything constructive.  Is that us in the future?  If we break the profit motive of our drug companies will we also deny future remedies and cures?  Can we balance the medical machine with government policy that offers reasonably priced care and insurance?

As Americans, we now demand more than we can afford.  If we can’t afford it our government can’t afford it.  Do we need to take smart pills to figure that out?