For every pill, they invent another ill
By Mary Wakefield
(Filed: 11/09/2005)

It had never occurred to me, before last week, that big pharmaceutical companies might actually be evil. I knew they could be a bit iffy - bribing doctors, failing to mention horrible side-effects, fudging the science - but I always imagined them to be fundamentally well-intentioned.

On Monday I read a new book, Selling Sickness, by an American journalist called Ray Moynihan, and am determined never to be so naive again. Drug companies, it turns out, are not on our side at all. They're misanthropic on an epic, Bond-villain scale. Instead of looking for ways to defeat illnesses, they spend their time trying to create them. Instead of selling cures to the relatively small pool of sick people, they find it more profitable to convince healthy folk that they are unwell. It's creepy and, in a sick way, it's also rather brilliant.

Here's a textbook example of how the disease-mongering works, courtesy of GlaxoSmith Kline. A few years ago, GSK needed to find a new application for one of its anti-depressants, Paxil, in order to extend the patent. What to do? Easy - invent an ailment for it to cure.

They found a brief mention of a little-known nervous condition - Social Anxiety Disorder - in a psychiatric journal somewhere, and hired a PR firm to turn it into a star. The symptoms of SAD - feeling nervous, sweaty, shy at parties - don't amount to much more than the symptoms of being alive, but it was marketed with a serious ad campaign and a catch-phrase: "Imagine being allergic to people."

The PR company rounded up patients, experts, a celebrity sufferer and then presented the SAD story to the press. A new disease? With a famous name? How could an editor could turn it down. The New York Times ran a long, serious feature and American Vogue followed suit.

Instantly, of course, thousands of people decided that they suffered from SAD. Doctors prescribed Paxil, GSK thrived and the PR company won an award for "Best PR Programme of the year".

All week I've been rootling around on the internet, finding out about disease-mongering, and from what I can gather it's a growing, multi-billion-dollar business across America and Europe. Drug companies invent and publicise new "lifestyle disorders" every day, and the public obligingly develop the symptoms and pop the pills.

As all hypochondriacs and pharmaceutical companies know, you only have to read a list of unpleasant symptoms to begin to suffer from them. It's the reverse placebo effect. Once a big drug company has wheedled a disease into the papers, they've as good as sold the cure.

On Wednesday, a PR girl called Charlotte cold-called me to enthuse about vodka. "It's a new brand called Diva," she said. "It's the world's most luxurious drink. Each bottle costs up to 20,000."

Charlotte sounded friendly and so keen to share the exciting news that I stayed on the line and chatted. What do I get for my twenty grand? I asked. "Well," said Charlotte, lowering her voice, "it's a very special product. Each customer tells the vodka company what their favourite precious stones are, and then the vodka is filtered through them into the bottle."

Does that make it taste different? "No," said Charlotte. Then she perked up, "but it looks pretty. I'll send you the press release then you can read all about it."

She did, and I discovered that Diva vodka is by far and away the most fabulously silly product I have ever come across. Each gem is apparently placed inside the bottles by hand by a team of men and women with severe disabilities. "Due to the colours and the vibrancy of the gems, this will be stimulating work," says the press release. "The disabled adults will work only with their favourite colours and every bottle of Diva will have a signature gem from the person who filled it."

There's not much of a bright side to New Orleans at the moment, but the odd cheering fact does leak into the papers. My colleague Dot Wordsworth points out in this week's Spectator that for New -Orleaneans, a sidewalk is (or was) a banquette. And it makes me very happy every day when I remember that the man in charge of the city's cops is called Police Superintendent P. Edwin Compass III.

  • Mary Wakefield is assistant editor of the Spectator