Who's Using What?
Consider these facts:
According to the government, 20% of American adults have abused prescription drugs - ingesting drugs for other than therapeutic purposes.
Perhaps one in four teenagers are abusing prescription drugs.
30% of adult women are using a sleeping pill at least a few nights a week
Eleven percent of Americans were taking anti-depressants by 2005 (it's higher now)
Overdoses among toddlers have increased by 30% in the last decade
Even the government wonders if we're the most pill happy population on earth.
We're probably not - lots of other countries, like France, are pill loving. But the data are looking worse. Insurance companies don't like to release such information, but executives tell me young working women have doubled and tripled use of sedatives and anti-anxiety drugs in the last four years.
Why We Like Pills
1. Pills are quick. You take them and feel the results, generally within minutes to hours.
2. Pills are easy. Water and a functioning GI tract is generally all that's required for them to work.
3. Pill advertising is ubiquitous and relentless - estimates are about $5 billion a year for prescription pills alone.
4. Changes in academic medicine made pharmaceutical companies major payers and engines of research - and large sources of income for many physicians in and outside universities.
5. Payment schedules for doctors which make it easiest and often more lucrative to hand out a pill than give advice or suggest self-empowering treatments.
6. High payments to drug companies in the US versus other nations made it logical to spend huge marketing and advertising budgets here.
7. A practical nation likes technological fixes.
8. The economic depression among working people. Real unemployment is closer to 20% than 10%, people can't afford their homes, offspring can't find work. Pills have been sold as a quick way to relieve and control stress.
9. No time. Trying to take care of kids, work two part time jobs, travel to elderly parents or playdates means that quick solutions are required.
Ways to Fix the Pharmaceutical Fix
A. Make Health, not health care, a mantra of policy. Americans imagine health comes out of a pill bottle or a medical device rather than from what they control themselves. The greatest effects on health came from nutrition, sanitation, and and then physical activity and rest. An every day fifteen minute walk by all able adults might do more for the public health than hundreds of billions in further health care dollars.
B. There's no need for public drug advertising. Television ads showing happy people popping pills with lists of side effects that stretch to Antarctica does not serve the public health. A healthy economy requires a healthy population, not an overmedicated one.
Despite Medicare Part B's near blank check to pharmaceutical companies, the public should be made aware of what drugs cost in the US versus other countries. There is no reason American governmental agencies or insurance companies should pay more for drugs than German or British ones, despite what their lobbyists tell Congress (they used to say higher profits in the US were necessary to pay for their research - if so, look at where the money went over the last two decades and weep. )
C. University docs should not be paid shills for pharmaceutical companies.
D. Overall societal costs should decrease if the government becomes more active in clinical trials to determine efficacy of common, expensive treatments. Relying on company data is not sufficient, as companies have great incentive to be highly selective in what they produce.
According to the CIA, the US ranks 49th in mortality with a health care system that's twice as expensive as most developed countries.
Pills are a growing part of that expense. We're not getting our money's worth.
Weaning the public off pills for most every ill will not be simple. But there's no reason we need to spend money pointlessly.
Public health projects are more deserving - and much cheaper.