Sounding the Pharma Alarm: Four Accounts of the Rise of the Pharmaceutical Industry

By Angela Bischoff, Oct. 20, 2005.

Let Them Eat Prozac, by Dr. David Healy, 2003

The Anti-depressant Fact Book: What you doctor won’t tell you about Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Celexa and Luvox, by Dr. Peter R. Breggin, 2001

Generation Rx: How prescription drugs are altering American lives, minds, and bodies, by Greg Critser, 2005

Selling Sickness: How the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies are turning us all into patients, by Ray Moynihan and Alan Cassels, 2005


Oh, the irony. The very generation that rebelliously experimented with street drugs is now the generation upon whom pharmaceutical drugs are experimented – with barely a protest.

We baby boomers feed drugs to our kids, ourselves and our parents at unprecedented rates, and we take these chemicals for longer periods of time and in greater amounts. Our drug obsession is overloading our livers, our rivers, our health budgets and our minds.

Shyness, formerly a simple character trait, is now marketed as a disease with a quick fix; bad relationships are prescribed a magic pill to numb the anxiety; rowdy kids are hopped up on Ritalin, and our elders are drugged to dull the effects of isolation and aging.

Drug company profits have outpaced nearly all other industries, mushrooming into a $500 billion dollar global giant. Not coincidentally, drug company influence in politics, regulatory agencies, medical research, education and advertising has become pervasive. Pharmaceutical capitalism has gripped us by the throat while we shake, begging for our next fix.

Fortunately, a cadre of brilliant critics has recently emerged to spell out how we got so addicted, and how to kick the pharmaceutical habit.

Dr. David Healy, author of Let Them Eat Prozac, is perhaps the world’s most credible and outspoken critic of the anti-depressant industry. A psychiatrist, author, researcher and industry consultant for more than two decades, Healy details evidence that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), frequently used to treat depression, also cause serious adverse reactions – including suicidal ideation – in children and adults.

Healy outlines with great authority how manufacturers have refused to acknowledge the risks, regulators have not taken appropriate steps to protect citizens, and critics of these drugs have been harassed.

Meticulously researched and referenced using drug company data retrieved through court-ordered subpoenas, Healy gives insight into how the courts, regulatory agencies and industry collaborate to suppress vital information necessary for public health.

If you’re more interested in the nuts and bolts of how anti-depressants work, then you’ll find everything you want to know in The Anti-Depressant Fact Book: What your doctor won’t tell you about Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Celexa and Luvox.

Breggin has served as expert witness to hundreds of American trials against makers of anti-depressants. In that capacity, he was able to review company data not previously available to public scrutiny. He contends that not only is there massive evidence of harm caused by anti-depressant drugs (for instance, sexual dysfunction, weight change, suicidal ideation, addiction, fractures, and emotional blunting), but that this harm can be permanent.

“An MRI brain scan study of children showed shrinkage in the brains of children who were taking the SSRI anti-depressant Paxil,” Breggin writes. “The young brain seems especially unable to handle the biochemical imbalances created by these drugs… Drug-induced reactions included aggression, loss of impulse control, agitation, and manic-like symptoms.”

The Anti-Depressant Fact Book is a brilliant and complete resource for those with concerns about anti-depressant drugs, and a must-read for anyone wanting to learn more about the industry.

And a powerful industry it is. As Greg Critser points out in Generation Rx: How prescription drugs are altering American lives, minds, and bodies, almost half of Americans use at least one prescription drug daily, spending $180 billion annually.

Critser weaves a complete picture of how the drug industry grew from a relatively minor player in the world markets to a global economic giant in just two decades. Through a combination of skillful government lobbying, financing of the Food and Drug Administration, aggressive marketing, drug company reps wooing doctors, and substantial funding of medical education and research, small pharma grew big.

Critser reveals the direct and indirect health consequences of our increasing reliance on pharmaceuticals, among them: increased incidence of damage to major organs, dependence and addiction, unreasonable expectations, adverse reactions, and ballooning health care expenditures.

Using “pills as a proxy for physician care” may be cheaper in the short run, Critser argues, but we all lose over time.

If, however, you only read one book about the dominating influence of drug companies in the world of medical science, read Selling Sickness: How the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies are turning us all into patients, by Ray Moynihan and Alan Cassels. Selling Sickness reveals how expanding the definitions of illness while lowering the threshold for treatments is creating millions of new patients and billions of dollars in new profits.

Moynihan and Cassels put Canada on the map with their shocking expose of how common ailments have, through slick marketing campaigns, political lobbying, and buying-off the medical establishment, become perceived as diseases.

With refreshing boldness, the authors document how pre-menstrual bloating and irritability has become a psychiatric illness and prescribed a purple and addictive anti-depressant; shyness has been repackaged as social anxiety disorder, also treatable with serotonin boosting anti-depressants; hyperactive kids are pumped with uppers; menopausal women are fed pregnant mares’ urine; and now the latest “illness”: Female Sexual Dysfunction. According to the marketing, half of all women are sexually dysfunctional and need a Viagra-type chemical to juice our mood.

The situation amounts to nothing less than corporate-induced creation of disease. Moynihan and Cassels make clear that “a health system that allows drug companies to play a role in defining who is sick is fundamentally unhealthy.” Furthermore, “a medical profession too inebriated by the largesse of profit-driven drug companies cannot serve the public interest.”

If, as these books argue, the unhealthy influence of the pharmaceutical industry has become a global scandal, distorting medical science and corrupting medicine while frightening and injuring millions, then how are we to respond?

All the authors profiled in this review touch on similar themes. First and foremost, they point out that there needs to be more public, medical and government independence from Big Pharma. That is, we need publicly funded and public-interest-driven review agencies, science and research institutions, and health advocacy groups to produce unbiased information about the risks and benefits of various options for treating and preventing disorders. Stronger legislation and ethical guidelines are needed to ensure such independence.

We also need to radically change the priorities in our health care spending, such that instead of squandering billions on medicalizing and treating the symptoms of normal life, we should focus our resources on preventable and treatable life-threatening diseases.

And finally, simply blaming Big Pharma isn’t enough. We all need to become better informed, transforming ourselves into critical health care consumers interested in wellness and prevention as well as a diversity of treatments.