Advertising Drugs to Addicts

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Advertising Drugs

Somewhere in between commercials for mascara and cereal, I saw an ad that was so bizarre I thought it might not have been real. I actually had to rewind to make sure I wasn’t crazy. A voiceover on a white screen with red writing asked viewers the following: “Do you laugh or cry uncontrollably, even at inappropriate times?” It’s safe to say that the former applies to every college guy in a fraternity ever and the latter applies to every woman who has ever had her period. I’ll even go as far to say that this could be applicable to every human being on the face of the earth at one point or another. Isn’t another name for this “experiencing your feelings”? No. Apparently, this is an actual disorder that can be treated with prescription drugs.

It feels like I can’t watch a television show, go online or read a magazine without seeing an advertisement for prescription drugs (America and New Zealand are the only two countries in the world where direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs is legal). I thought I had experienced every form of this marketing until I started seeing ads for Vyvanse (a form of prescription speed) and the ADHD drugs Strattera and Nuvigil on Facebook. As someone who was addicted to Adderall for the better part of my life, I suddenly realized that ads like these could potentially be triggering for people like me. Not that Big Pharma cares.

During my addiction, getting whatever prescription I wanted wasn’t much more difficult than buying potato chips. I knew the right things to say to get any doctor to write a prescription for everything from Adderall to Ativan. Even when I didn’t ask for pills, I was offered them—like free logo pens in the waiting room. In fairness to them, I didn’t look like a stereotypical addict. Walking into a doctor’s office on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with my hair, nails and makeup done, carrying a PPO insurance card, no one would have suspected that I was an addict who had made my doctor into my dealer.

Not all drugs are bad or addictive of course but all drugs are powerful. Unfortunately, easy access and a lot of marketing can make us forget this. In fact, in 2012 Big Pharma spent 19 times as much on marketing as they did on research. This can blur the line between doctor and patient; after a while, all of the ads and Google searches made me start to think I knew enough to do my own prescribing. I even tried to download the Physician’s Desk Reference app, a book that contains information about any and all prescriptions, but I couldn’t without a DEA number (I ended up downloading the WebMD App instead).

Still, between the ads and amount of information available online, it’s not too difficult for anyone to feel like they don’t need a doctor to diagnose them with something they can determine they have on their own. There are obvious benefits to the availability of medical information for most people. But for active addicts, having access to this isn’t all that different from putting a prescription pad in their hands. If someone wants a prescription for a narcotic to get high, all they need to do is provide their doctor with the right symptoms to receive it. I’m not saying that I think we shouldn’t have access to information; it just means that we need to recognize the power of it.

But information that consumers seek out themselves is different from the ads promising magic pills for conditions we didn’t even know we had. Prescription pharmaceuticals are being presented in the same manner as other things that can improve our lives—Stronger paper towels! Retractable garden hoses! This is taken a step further when celebrities endorse prescription drugs—the way, say, Jersey Shore’s Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino is now shilling for Suboxone. In addition to Suboxone, The Situation endorses his own clothing line and has previously been paid by Vitamin Water, Reebok shoes, vitamins for GNC and vodka for his words of support. Unlike Brooke Shields’ endorsement of Latisse, a prescription cosmetic that makes your eyelashes grow, Suboxone is a highly controversial drug used to treat opiate addiction that is allegedly harder to detox off of than heroin. Not exactly “Gym, Tan, Suboxone,” is it? While Sorrentino isn’t the only celebrity to have jumped on the drug bandwagon—Paula Deen, Sally Field, Blythe Danner, Larry the Cable Guy, Phil Mickelson and Bruce Jenner, to name a few, also have—he’s the only one I know of endorsing a drug that can kill you if you combine it with vodka. At the time of his death in 2008, another celebrity had Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, Diazepam, Temazepam, Alprazolam and Doxylamine present in his system; I guess it’s safe to say that Heath Ledger wasn’t the kind of celebrity that pharmaceutical companies wanted endorsing their drugs?

When potentially deadly drugs are presented to consumers in the way that, say, peanut butter is, it’s hard to underestimate their impact. And this cavalier attitude toward pills has clearly contributed to America’s massive prescription drug addiction problem: 40 people die each day of prescription painkiller overdoses—more than cocaine and heroin combined—and more people die from prescription drug intoxication than motor vehicle accidents each year. But pills don’t come with seat belts.

A few years ago, a dog bit my hand so deeply that I had to go to Urgent Care. Because of the pain, I asked for a Vicodin, figuring the doctor would give me one or two pills to take at the facility. Not only did he give me those but I also walked out with a prescription for 30 more. Considering that, starting at the age of eight, doctors also gave me Ritalin, Adderall and every other available form of legal speed available, I know I’m sensitive to this. But I’m not the only one: ADHD drugs are the most commonly prescribed medicines for adolescents today. Being marketed drugs for every stage of life from childhood on, it’s no wonder that we have such a problem with prescription drug addiction. And I can’t help but wonder if other solutions to medical problems were advertised—such as meditation for anxiety or yoga for pain—would we be hooked on those fixes instead?

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About Author

Amanda Lauren is an actress, writer and troublemaker. She lives Los Angeles with Lulu, her very tolerant dog. She’s written for a number of outlets, including xoJane. Please follow Amanda on Twitter on @amandalauren.

11 Comments

  1. disqus_l16gb5lO3Z on

    So many great points in this one and so well thought out. I just moved from NY to London and LOVE the fact that there are no prescription drug commercials constantly being shoved down my throat.

  2. “And this cavalier attitude toward pills has clearly contributed to America’s massive prescription drug addiction problem: 40 people die each day of prescription painkiller overdoses—more than cocaine and heroin combined—and more people die from prescription drug intoxication than motor vehicle accidents each year. But pills don’t come with seat belts.”

    If that 40-per-day number is true, it amounts to a rate of 4.65 deaths per 100,000 population. By contrast, the rate for automobile accident fatalities is 10.3876 — 88 DEATHS PER DAY! That’s the lowest rate since 1920, and not generally considered a “massive problem”. Influenza kills far more Americans than prescription drug overdose, as does kidney disease, suicide, alcohol-related deaths, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, lung disease, cancer, firearm injuries, Parkinson’s, homicide, etc.

    It’s just not the case that more people die from prescription drug “intoxication” than motor vehicle accidents. There were 32,367 automobile fatalities in the US in 2011, compared with somewhere between 14,000 and 15,000 prescription painkiller deaths. The link for that statement is to a website that sells vitamins as a cure for back pain.

    Nuvigil is not an ADHD drug (or not approved as such, in any case) and the Physician’s Desk Reference can be had from Amazon (and most bookstores) without a “DEA number”.

    I suppose it’s true that pills don’t come with seat belts. Also, you can’t hug children with nuclear arms.

    Look, addiction to prescription drugs is a real problem — although the rate is relatively low, it has risen very rapidly over the past decade. Big Pharma and direct-to-consumer advertising are plenty sucky too, but broadsides against mental health and pain management medications cloud the issue…as does the author’s failure to do basic fact-checking.

    • Hi Kevin, you make some decent observations about some statistics, but, and please do not take this the wrong way, I could give a rat’s ass about any of them other than 1. That 1 being the death of my wife. Her life will not be reduced to a statistic. The Pharmaceutical Industry provided the final nails and drove them into her coffin. They were not entirely responsible, it was a series of events, a chain of cause and effect, but ultimately, if not for the pill pusher, she would most likely still be alive. Statistics are deceiving, they do not tell the whole story.Somebody dies of lung disease, but how did they get it to begin with? My dad has this problem and it will probably be what kills him . He quite possible he got the lung problem from being around cow shit dust his whole life. So what really is killing him, cow shit dust or lung disease? What will the stats reflect? – – – Statistics can also be presented in manipulative ways, for example, did you know that 100% of people who eat carrots die? I do not know for sure, but if I were to bet, the pill pushers manipulate the statistics… there is just too much money involved. – – – like i said, please don’t take my reply the wrong way, i am not attacking you or your post.

  3. Jacqueline Sperling on

    Just few Buprenorphine / Nalaxone (Suboxone) facts;

    Buprenorphine is an Agonist when no other opiates are present.
    It is an Antagonist when other opiate Agonists are present and has no additive euphoriant effects with heroin.
    There is less risk of overdose.
    There is a ceiling effect on respiratory depression.
    Generally Buprenorphine has lower ‘reinforcing potential’ which means it has less ‘abuse liability’ and the ‘severity’ of dependence is less than with opioids or other opioid substitution alternatives.
    Respiratory depressant effects of buprenorphine and other opiates are not additive.
    Overdose fatalities through respiratory depression with buprenorphine alone is rare.
    Buprenorphine related fatalities with other CNS depressants, e.g. benzodiazepines and alcohol do occur.

    Advantages to Buprenorphine over Methadone;

    More clear headed ,less cloudy though this clear headedness not always welcome
    Causes less constipation ,sweating than methadone but severe headaches reported especially early days
    High overdose potential on methadone but need large doses of buprenorphine so less likely
    Daily consumption less important (no liquid handcuffs)

    Disadvantages;

    Dangerous interaction with CNS depressants (alcohol ,benzoes) and also antidepressants and antipsychotics.
    Risk of overdose if taken with the above is the same as with methadone.
    Vein damage if injected
    Drowsiness

    Benefits of opioid substitution treament to the user and society;

    Reduced rates of injecting drugs.
    Reduced rates of other illicit drug use.
    Reduced rates of criminal activity.
    Reduction in suicide/overdose (3-4 x less).
    Allows ongoing contact with possibilities of further harm reduction and therapeutic input.
    For every $ invested in treatment $3 + are saved.

    Extrapolate from findings in sample 200 opioid dependent users:

    67% may be expected to reduce drug use.
    61% may be expected to reduce HIV risk behavior.
    85% may be expected to reduce drug related criminal behavior.
    61% may be expected to reduce drug and property related criminal behavior and
    58% may be expected to reduce drug and non drug related criminal behaviour…

  4. The FDA has finally decided to wake up to the fact that prescription drugs are just as murderous as alcohol or illegal drugs. It’s proposal to regulate addictive painkillers seems like a positive step towards curbing addiction to pills like Vicodin and hydrocodone. But, that too seems to be met with criticism. What are your thoughts on this, Amanda? Do you think the FDA move will help curb addiction?

    • Just saw this, so sorry for not responding sooner. Honestly, and this probably isn’t the answer you want to hear, but drug addicts are resourceful. They will get drugs at any cost. So, I don’t think the government making it more difficult will do anything but create a higher street value for opiate based painkillers. This means addicts who can’t afford pills will likely turn to heroin, which is what has happened with oxycodone. The government needs to re-direct their efforts to facilitating rehabilitation.

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