Xanax junkies

By CYNTHIA COTTS  |  November 19, 2007

In 1989 Upjohn gave $1.5 million to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), which used the “unrestricted” (i.e., “no string attached”) grant to produce educational videos about panic, anxiety, and depression.

“People don’t understand mental illness, and there’s a valid educational job to be done,” says John Blamphin, the APA’s director of public affairs. “On the other hand, Upjohn has medications for anxiety disorder and panic. The more people know about the illnesses and get into treatment, the more likely their [Upjohn’s] medications are going to be prescribed.”

When asked about Upjohn’s promotion of panic, company spokesman Godfrey Grant explained, “We’re trying to do something that is in our interest, but it is also a legitimate project to make the public more aware” of a disabling illness.

At the APA’s annual meeting this past May in Washington, DC, Upjohn’s self-interest was symbolized by a black Xanax sign on a pole. The sign revolved high above the convention-center floor, towering over exhibits for other over-hyped psychoactive drugs, such as Prozac and BuSpar. At the foot of the pole, Upjohn’s Panic Interactive Learning Center seated eight at a time. Curious visitors could don headphones and touch their personal video screen to active segments offering the medical overview, case histories, or physicians’ perspectives. Naturally, all the doctors urged medication for panic.

Upjohn wasn’t just hawking at the APA convention; it also funded a three-hour symposium, “Panic Disorder: Consensus for the ’90s.” Speakers included Dr. James Ballenger, of the Medical University of South Carolina, who declared that tranquilizer dependence is “probably the most controversial issue in psychiatry” today.

In a recent interview Ballenger blamed the uproar on media hysteria, claiming the benefits of Xanax as a treatment for panic usually outweigh the risks. “Patients hear things that unnecessarily scare them,” he intoned, “and they feel guilty about becoming dependent. But dependence is not a weakness. It’s a physiological condition.”

Translation: even though a patient who tries to kick Xanax cold turkey can expect insomnia, nausea, and hallucinations, she shouldn’t think of herself as an addict.

Sky-High Profits
Drug companies reach into deep pockets to fund their marketing campaigns — after all, drug manufacturing is the most profitable industry in the country. In 1990 the top 10 pharmaceutical companies had a profit margin three times that of the average Fortune 500 company. Over the past decade drug prices have risen at almost triple the rate of inflation.

Despite its fabulous profits, the industry is now on the run. The FDA has tightened standards for advertising and promotion, and the FBI is targeting illicit distribution of pharmaceuticals. A handful in Congress have begun calling for regulatory controls.

To fend off such attacks, the pill czars have been pouring money into marketing. By now their methods of directly pitching products are well known. At meetings sponsored by drug companies, doctors are wined, dined, and dazzled by promoters of the host’s drug du jour. Magazine ads like those for Rogaine make heady promises, then list the side effects in fine print. But the industry’s most insidious activity is still a trade secret: marketing and lobbying disguised as public education. Drug companies use “educational” campaigns to whip up consumer demand and to instill anti-regulatory sentiment.

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