By Mark Henderson, Science Correspondent
PHARMACEUTICAL companies are systematically creating diseases in order to sell more of their products, turning healthy people into patients and placing many at risk of harm, a special edition of a leading medical journal claims today.
The practice of “diseasemongering” by the drug industry is promoting non-existent illnesses or exaggerating minor ones for the sake of profits, according to a set of essays published by the open-access journal Public Library of Science Medicine.
The special issue, edited by David Henry, of Newcastle University in Australia, and Ray Moynihan, an Australian journalist, reports that conditions such as female sexual dysfunction, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and “restless legs syndrome” have been promoted by companies hoping to sell more of their drugs.
Other minor problems that are a normal part of life, such as symptoms of the menopause, are also becoming increasingly “medicalised”, while risk factors such as high cholesterol levels or osteoporosis are being presented as diseases in their own right, according to the editors.
“Disease-mongering turns healthy people into patients, wastes precious resources and causes iatrogenic (medically induced) harm,” they say. “Like the marketing strategies that drive it, disease-mongering poses a global challenge to those interested in public health, demanding in turn a global response.”
Doctors, patients and support groups need to be more aware that pharmaceutical companies are taking this approach, and more research is needed into the changing ways in which conditions are presented, according to the writers.
Disease-awareness campaigns are often funded by drug companies, and “more often designed to sell drugs than to illuminate or inform or educate about the prevention of illness or the maintenance of health”, they say.
Particular conditions that are highlighted in the journal include sexual function in both men and women. The prevalence of female sexual dysfunction, one paper claims, has been highly exaggerated to provide a new market for drugs, while the makers of anti-impotence medicines, such as Viagra and Cialis, have been involved with their presentation as lifestyle drugs that can boost the sexual prowess of healthy men.
Ordinary shyness is routinely presented as a social anxiety disorder and treated with antidepressants, while newly identified conditions such as “restless legs syndrome” — a constant urge to move one’s legs — are presented as being much more common than they really are.
Richard Ley, of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, rejected the accusations, pointing out that Britain has firm safeguards against disease-mongering. Many of the authors’ criticisms, he said, were aimed squarely at countries such as the United States, where pharmaceuticals can be openly advertised directly to patients.
“Drug companies are not allowed to communicate directly with patients, and we do not invent diseases,” he said.
“We provide information that there are treatments out there that might help certain conditions, but at the end of the day it is down to health professionals to decide if they are appropriate.
“The best safeguard is that the doctor who knows the product and knows the patient’s history is the one who decides what to prescribe.”