October 17, 2019

Land of the Medicated

It is estimated that every man, woman and child in America consumes on the average 5 pills per day.  If we use a recent population total of 307,212,123, we, as Americans, consume 1,536,060,615 pills on a daily basis.  Annually, the count becomes even more staggering 560,662,124,475.  About 130 million Americans, swallow, inject, infuse, spray, and pat on prescribed medication every month– more than any other country.  The number of prescriptions has swelled by two-thirds over the past decade to 3.5 billion prescriptions annually.  Americans devour even more non-prescription drugs!

The pharmaceutical industry served up more than $250 billion dollars worth of sales last year.  That figure roughly equaled all the country’s gasoline stations added together, or an $850.00 pharmaceutical fill up for every American.  Well over 125,000 Americans die from drug reactions and mistakes every year.  That makes the pharmaceutical industry the fourth leading cause of death after heart disease, cancer and stroke.

The big question is do we need all these drugs?  The right balance of risk and benefit is hard to strike for a raft of heavily promoted drugs that treat common, persistent, daily life conditions like anti-inflammatories, antacids, allergies, depression, premenstrual crankiness, waning sexual powers, and impulsiveness in children.  You name it.  Last year, for example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration classified about 75% or three-quarters of all newly approved drugs as similar to existing ones.

The dangers escalate when doctors prescribe drugs for uses not formally approved by the FDA.   In a recent report, the Centers for Disease Control voiced concern about huge off-label growth of antidepressants.  They have expanded to treat often loosely defined syndromes of compulsion, panic or anxiety and PMS.  Around the country, prescription drug sales have pushed relentlessly upward by an annual average of 11% over the past five years.

The aging population is partly at fault with its attendant ailments like cancer, heart disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease.  Other conditions have mysteriously proliferated including asthma, diabetes, and obesity.  Drug advertising to consumers has also boomed since the late 1990’s, thanks largely to relaxed government restrictions on television advertisements.

There have been increasing accusations and findings that clinical trials conducted or funded by pharmaceutical companies are much more likely to report positive results for the preferred medication.  Drug researchers not directly employed by pharmaceutical companies often look to companies for grants, and companies often look to researchers for studies that will make their products look favorable.

Drug companies spend $5 billion dollars annually sending representatives to physician offices.  Currently, there are approximately 100,000 pharmaceutical sales reps in the United States pursuing some 120,000 pharmaceutical prescribers.  Add to this, the power of Big Pharma, the pharmaceutical lobby, and drug promotion is a very big business in the United States.  The top twenty pharmaceutical companies and their two trade groups lobbied on at least 1,600 pieces of legislation between 1998 and 2004, more than any other industry.  The pharmaceutical companies also spent $900 million dollars on lobbying between 1998 and 2005.  The industry has 1,274 registered lobbyists in Washington, D.C.

The future for Americans seems to be “more of the same.” The high price of U.S. prescription drugs has been a source of ongoing controversy.  Corporations claim the high costs are the result of pricey research and development programs, while critics point out, in addition to the industry’s profits, there is the high cost devoted to marketing and lobbying.  Add in the mix, the threat of legal action against physicians and hospitals and there is a general reluctance by both doctors and hospitals to reduce or eliminate current patient prescribed medications for fear of a law suit as the result of an adverse reaction or death.  So we go on taking billions and billions of pills each year.

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Written by
Donald Wittmer

DONALD WITTMER is a retired business executive who held key roles in the automotive and banking sectors. For a time, he also served as a Fiscal Agency Manager for the Detroit branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. He received his undergraduate degree from Cincinnati's Xavier University, an M.A. in business management from Central Michigan University, and earned certification in bank operations from the School of Banking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A husband, father, and grandfather, he teaches part-time at the Kent Place School for Girls in Summit, New Jersey.

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Written by Donald Wittmer
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