Oh that such wickedness should be
When I chaired the health subcommittee of a local development association I organized with a doctor to conduct a public meeting on the topic of cardiac health. He had worked in a big city cardiac unit overseas where he learned just how, well, “unpleasant” heart disease is. He enthusiastically accepted the offer, sincerely desirous of helping people avoid suffering. He informed me that he would organize supper after the meeting at no cost to the community or attendees. I interpreted the offer as a most generous gesture on his behalf. In a sense it was; but later, I found out that the bill was paid by a well-known drug company. I was somewhat disappointed when the entire thrust of the talk was on the evils of high cholesterol, and the absolute necessity of having regular blood tests and, if necessary, taking medication for the rest of one's life. Lifestyle factors in avoiding heart disease were totally ignored. When attendees raised questions about lifestyle's importance in maintaining a healthy heart, they were brushed aside. The gospel being preached was unambiguous — the good news of statins.
Now I'm certainly not urging anybody to throw away their pills. However, the story illustrates a truism about the world we live in; some drug companies don't focus merely on developing drugs, they are big time into marketing sickness. Whereas in the wild days of the Wild West snake oil salesmen pedaled the "tonic to cure everything", some drug companies are pedaling illness. What do I mean? Let me quote verbatim from the dust jacket of a frightening new book, “Selling Sickness: How Drug Companies are Turning Us All into Patients”, by Moynihan and Cassels:
Three decades ago, the head of one of the world's leading drug companies made some remarkably candid comments. Wishing his company was more like the chewing gum maker,
Wrigley's, the chief executive of Merck said it had long been his dream to make drugs for healthy people, and “sell to everyone”. That dream now drives the marketing machinery of one of the most profitable industries on the planet.
The basic idea is that “drug companies are marketing fear in order to redefine human illness”. They convince healthy people that they are sick and in need of medication. Huge effort is being expended in this drive to sell illness. Doctors are being actively courted to act as unwitting, and in some cases witting, salespeople. Cholesterol is demonized and statins presented as the Messiah of ailing hearts. The airwaves are abuzz with talk of depression and the need for drugs to “cure” it. We have been told that one in five of us suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and we need to take Lotronex to keep our bowels in good shape. And yet, “… the drug's meaningful benefits were on average non-existent or modest at best, yet its side effects were, in rare cases, potentially fatal” (p. 158). Osteoporosis, female sexual dysfunction and even menopause (yes, menopause) are presented as a form of illness and, joy of joys, we have a drug to fix it. “Rightly rewarded for saving life and reducing suffering, the global drug giants are no longer content selling medicines only to the ill. Because as Wall Street well knows, there's a lot of money to be made telling healthy people they're sick” (p. x).
When I read a well-documented, thoroughly-researched exposé such as that presented by Moynihan and Cassels, I cannot but help think of Jesus' words to the Pharisees: “For you devour widows' houses, and for a pretense make long prayers” (Matt. 23:14). Legal, perhaps, but “respectable theft” is an unmitigated evil, whether committed by religious leaders or sartorially elegant executives. Why do we let them get away with it?