Deprived of the low-hanging fruit of medical research, the drugs industry now has to spend ever more vast sums of money to research and develop ever more hit or miss drugs.
A far easier option is to ‘discover’ new disorders that turn out to be eminently treatable with existing and still ‘in-patent’ drugs. And so we see the creeping ‘medicalisation’ of daily life.
Last week’s BBC2 Horizon programme (see story below) illustrated very effectively how this approach has infected attitudes in the medical establishment. It showed for example the big shift in thinking on drugs, from the early goal of developing treatments or cures for specific diseases, to creating drugs “for everyone”. In other words, pills that aren’t taken by people with a disease, but pills taken by those who are at risk of developing a disease. It’s as if all the drugs industry’s dreams came true.
No surprise then that drug companies directly influence decisions on which parts of the population are seen as ‘at risk’. Similarly, no surprise that the risk evaluation bar is often set very low. Horizon cited statins —prescribed for people with raised cholesterol (a staggering six million Britons take them) — as an example of how this works. Evidently, the cholesterol level found in a healthy 25-year-old is the basis here for defining ‘normal’, immediately categorising almost everyone over 50 as having abnormal cholesterol levels and therefore being ‘at risk’ of having a heart attack or stroke (ie perfect candidates for statins).
The real danger is that we end up with an incredibly warped sense of what wellness is. The drugs industry’s numbers games are encouraging doctors and health authorities to re-classify great swathes of the population as sick. What better way to create a mass drugs dependency.
By Jim Manson
Natural Products editor and environment journalist
Jim Manson is editor of Natural Products magazine. He’s written widely on environment and development issues for specialist magazines and national media, including the Financial Times, The Guardian and Time Out.