The pharmaceutical industry’s image has been significantly damaged in recent years as the public discovered the role its aggressive marketing played in fueling the opioid epidemic. But the American people are still largely in the dark about what may be pharma’s most effective tactic for pushing drugs — marketing diseases.
There’s a substantial body of medical literature dating back to the early ’90s about the practice known as “disease mongering.” Pharmaceutical companies regularly pathologize everyday experiences, convince doctors that they are serious problems, tell a hypochondriacal public it needs help and offers the cure: a new drug. Against the onslaught of billions of dollars in marketing campaigns each year, however, researchers’ warnings about these tactics have gone largely unheeded.
According to the Mayo Clinic, nearly 70 percent of Americans take at least one prescription drug.
Adriane Fugh-Berman, a professor of pharmacology at Georgetown University Medical Center, said the pharmaceutical industry medicalizes normal life by positing that a vague, highly relatable, everyday condition is symptomatic of a newly invented disease. In other cases, pharma exaggerates the prevalence or severity of an existing condition to entice more customers.
“Marketing for a drug can start seven to 10 years before they go on the market. Because it’s illegal to promote a drug before it goes on the market, what they’re promoting is the disease. That’s not illegal to do because there’s no regulation on creating diseases,” Fugh-Berman told Yahoo News.
Lisa Schwartz and Steven Woloshin, co-directors of the Center for Medicine and Media at Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, said disease-awareness campaigns may seem caring or educational but are often just marketing in disguise. The campaigns often follow three basic steps: lower the bar for diagnosis, raise the stakes so people want to get tested and spin the evidence about a drug’s benefits and risks. These steps were seen in campaigns on testosterone deficiency, bipolar disorder and restless leg syndrome.