Big Pharma and the Medicalization of Routine Problems
“Fifty years ago, it made sense to assert that mental illnesses are not diseases, but it makes no sense to say so today. Debate about what counts as mental illness has been replaced by legislation about the medicalization and demedicalization of behavior. Old diseases such as homosexuality and hysteria disappear. New diseases such as gambling and smoking appear.” So writes the iconoclastic psychiatrist Thomas Szasz.
Almost 50 years ago Szasz published. It changed the political framework in which mental illness was addressed by laying the foundation for a concept Szasz developed through a series of books, including (1970). That concept was “the Therapeutic State”—a collaboration between psychiatry and the State through which “undesirable” actions, thoughts, and behavior patterns were suppressed. Thus Szasz not only disputed the moral and scientific basis of psychiatry but also argued that modern medicine was an engine of social control, with pharmaceuticals as primary tools.
A new slate of drugs now addresses a wide range of so-called disorders, or dysfunctions, that former generations considered environmental problems or lifestyle choices: from obesity to attention deficit, from erectile dysfunction to social anxiety (shyness), from menopause to alcoholism. Indeed, laziness is now being discussed as “a neuro-developmental dysfunction” for which drugs are being developed. The current Therapeutic State may be best analyzed as a collaboration between modern medicine, the pharmaceutical industry, and the State.
The debate stirred by Szasz has muted. The medical establishment and mainstream media are now advocates of the Therapeutic State. Similar advocates dominate universities, studies, prestigious committees, FDA hearings, and governmental bodies. Since writing The Myth, Szasz himself has noted that “the formerly sharp distinctions between medical hospitals and mental hospitals, voluntary and involuntary mental patients, and private and public psychiatry have blurred into nonexistence. Virtually all medical and mental health care is now the responsibility of and is regulated by the federal government, and its cost paid, in full or in part, by the federal government.” Problems of everyday life have been medicalized, and people are viewed as having little or no ability to “cure” conditions such as alcoholism or drug abuse through willpower or change of habit. The focus Szasz tried to foster on the individual’s responsibility for his or her own dysfunctions has eroded.
Happily, a backlash against the medicalization of everyday life is occurring. Alas, it is being fought on the wrong ground.
In this regard, a fascinating book has just been published. Sex, Lies, and Pharmaceuticals: How Drug Companies Plan to Profit from Female Sexual Dysfunction by Ray Moynihan and Barbara Mintzes is a work of investigative journalism that explores the close financial relationship between the medical experts who define and develop the “science” behind new dysfunctions and the $500-plus billion pharmaceutical industry that profits from treating them. For example, Moynihan examines the makeup of experts on committees that define dysfunctions for the extremely influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM); it is from the DSM that “social anxiety disorder” derives. (Revealingly, homosexuality was only delisted as a disorder in 1970.) Moynihan observes, “The DSM has been criticised for the closeness between the expert committees who write the definition of diseases and the pharmaceutical companies that sell the drugs prescribed to treat them. One study that looked closely at the affiliations of the men and women on those committees found that more than half of them had ties to drug companies. On the committees revising mood disorders, including depression, the figure was closer to 100 per cent.”
In short, he constructs a strong case for endemic bias within the medical establishment in favor of drug companies and the creation of disease.
Another sign of backlash is the emergence of grassroots rebellions against specific “diseases,” such as the currently emerging “female sexual dysfunction,” and against the use of drugs, such as Ritalin, to “cure” attention deficit disorder in children.
A reopening of debate on medicalizing everyday life is to be applauded. But, unlike Szasz, the new critics, such as Moynihan, do not take aim at the Therapeutic State; instead they focus on the therapeutic industry—that is, the flow of money between the medical establishment and the pharmaceutical companies. The culpability of the government in the creation of disease is either marginalized or denied.
Other pharmaceutical dissidents tend to view the State as the solution, not part of the problem. For example, feminist activist Leonore Tiefer works through the World Health Organization to impose new legislation that promotes such “rights” (or entitlements) as “the right to comprehensive sexuality education” and “the right to sexual health care, which should be available for prevention and treatment of all sexual concerns, problems, and disorders.”
It is possible that critics like Moynihan and Tiefer will accomplish some good. Perhaps they will be able to reduce the widespread prescription of the powerful Ritalin to grade-school children. But without understanding the essential role played by the State in the medicalization of everyday life, critics can never strike at the root of the problem. Indeed, they may well worsen matters by shifting blame and giving more authority to the very agency most responsible for the creation of disease.
The Need for a New Focus
The focus of the reemerging debate needs to shift onto Szaszian grounds, onto an analysis of the Therapeutic State, in at least four ways.
First, it must be clear that government defines the framework for all medical practices within North America. Second, the protection offered to pharmaceutical companies should be analyzed as legal privilege. Third, the relatively new and influential “private-public partnerships”—a marriage between the corporate sector and government institutions—should be examined and exposed. And, fourth, the role government plays in “marketing” drugs through institutions like the public school system and social services must be examined.
Government framework. There is no genuine competition allowed in the practice of medicine or the administration of drugs. Both of these vital functions of society are monopolies that the government assigns to those who meet State requirements and abide by State rules. Thus the American Medical Association (AMA) is able to exert monopoly control of medical care, such as hospitalization, and has a long history of persecuting competitors such as midwives.
But licensing is only the most obvious way in which the State and AMA define medical care. There are many other labyrinthine ways in which the medical establishment partners with authority. In reporting on the AMA’s support of Obamacare, for example, the Wall Street Journal explained last year, “The organization wants to protect a monopoly that the federal government has created for it—a medical coding system administered by the AMA that every health-care professional and hospital must use if they wish to get paid for the services they provide. This monopoly generates income of $70 million to $100 million annually for the AMA. That makes the AMA less an association looking out for doctors and more a special-interest group beholden to Congress and the White House.”
Legal privilege. All prescription drugs must be approved by the FDA; but, again, the monopoly privilege of being the sole legal drug dealers in society is only the most obvious one granted the pharmaceutical industry and hardly captures the extent of partnership. Moynihan chronicles a less obvious privilege in writing about “one of the biggest healthcare frauds in U.S. history. Pfizer was accused of illegally promoting an anti-arthritis drug for unapproved uses and, so, creating a health risk to users. Pfizer admitted to limited guilt and paid a criminal fine of $1.2 Billion and civil penalties of $1B.” Despite the hefty financial hit, not one executive was held personally responsible; no retribution was sought. The sentencing judge, federal District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock (Massachusetts) commented in his concluding remarks, “This is a case in which no human being, apparently, is going to be held responsible for substantial criminal activity by a corporation.” He notes that Pfizer absorbed the financial hit as a “cost of doing business” and still returned record profits.
Private-public partnerships (PPP). A PPP is a collaboration between government and the private sector in which a venture is funded (in part or in full) by tax dollars and operated through the private sector, or else the private sector raises capital under contract with the government to provide services. Although PPPs are most often associated with infrastructure projects, such as the repair of roads or building of bridges, this sort of ersatz capitalism is rampant within medical research and drug promotion. According to a 2001 study, “hundreds of millions of dollars” have been invested in the United States to promote partnerships around health issues, creating “thousands of alliances, coalitions, consortia and other health partnerships.” That trend has only increased in the ensuing years. Tax-funded research is commonly funneled through nominally private organizations or researchers. Conferences, studies, reports, and such are conducted at taxpayer expense. Arguably, such funding constitutes the greatest barrier to alternative, independent research.
Uncle Same the Pusherman
Government peddling of pharmaceuticals. It is not merely that private for-profit organizations have used tax dollars to climb aboard the public health bandwagon. The government uses its agencies to create a market base. Just one example is the role of the public schools as a “pusher” of Ritalin—a form of speed more potent than cocaine—to millions of school-age children. Overwhelmingly, it is prescribed to boys who are “unruly” in class. A 2001 report stated, “If Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer were in a school in Massachusetts today, they’d be drugged with Ritalin, according to many psychiatrists and other experts.”
As a recent September Huffington Post headline asked, “Do 2.5 Million Children Really Need Ritalin?” Dr. Sanford Newmark continued, “What is going on here? Have millions of our children become so hyperactive and unable to focus that they are incapable of succeeding at school or dealing with the demands of normal life? Or are we creating an illness where there is none, calling normal variations in temperament and personality a ‘disease’ that requires the intervention of long term, and extremely profitable, pharmaceutical medication?”
Monopoly, legal privileges, the rise of PPPs, the use of tax dollars to create disease and eliminate competition, the peddling of pharmaceuticals through government agencies—these issues must be prominent in any productive discussion of the medicalization of everyday life. If the discussion focuses on corporate greed, then the Therapeutic State will have merely entered a new phase.