The Drug Culture

Since Mitt Romney’s visit to Israel, there has been a renewed focus by the chattering classes on the role of “culture” in creating social norms. (Romney attributed the fact that Israel’s economy is more robust than that of the Palestinians to a superior “culture.” It caused quite a stir.)

Culture certainly plays a significant role in all societies, albeit not in the linear and highly simplified fashion Romney implied.  Often, being immersed in the culture as we are, we miss the connections.

I thought about the unappreciated ways in which we reinforce cultural cues yesterday morning, while I was dutifully doing my time on the treadmill. The television was in real-time (no TIVO at the gym!) and one commercial after another implored me to talk to my doctor about [insert name of drug here]. The purple pill, the pill for COPD and the cure for a raft of other initials and acronyms for ailments I don’t have.

There are a lot of appropriate reactions to the onslaught of medical ads with which we are all inundated daily. One of my pet peeves is the amount of money being spent by pharmaceutical companies at the same time they defend charging big bucks for medicines by citing research and development costs. The last numbers I saw suggested that the 5+ billion dollars annually being spent on advertising to consumers actually exceeds those R and D outlays.

But yesterday, it suddenly hit me that the message being conveyed–intentionally or not–isn’t the relatively innocuous (if expensive) “buy my aspirin” but “have a problem? Take a pill.” Thinning hair, low “T”, anxiety, trouble sleeping, gas….you name it, there’s a pill for it. An easy fix for whatever ails you.

These messages overwhelm the other ads, the ones imploring parents to talk to their children about the evils of drugs. How believable are those solemn discussions, when teenagers see their parents and grandparents being medicated and over-medicated? How are they supposed to respect the (highly artificial) line between the “good” pills (legal) and the “bad” drugs (illegal). I did a fair amount of research on drug policy a few years ago, and was astonished to discover that nowhere in the convoluted labyrinth that is drug prohibition is there a definition of what constitutes “abuse,” or an objective distinction between use and abuse, or a bright line between narcotics that are illegal and those that are routinely prescribed.

Here is an experiment anyone can do: turn on your television for an hour, and count the number of commercials for drugs. Watch how those ads portray people before and after they take the product being peddled.

In Huxley’s Brave New World, people were constantly being urged to stop worrying and take a drug called soma. ““You do look glum! What you need is a gramme of soma.” Soma was described as having “All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.” 

Sounds eerily familiar…..