BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Drugs are big money, to the extent Americans spend hundreds of billions of dollars every year on them. In fact, recent studies show more than 6 in 10 Americans take at least one prescription pill everyday.
Experts say drugs are part of the American culture, to live free from pain or emotional stress.
The signs are everywhere. Watch any amount of television and viewers are bombarded with ad after ad for the next miracle drug.
A study published last fall in the Journal of the American Medical Association found in 2012 nearly 60 percent of people 20 and older were on at least one prescription medication. That’s up from 50 percent in 2000. During the same period, the percentage of people taking five or more prescription drugs nearly doubled, to 15 percent from 8 percent.
The most commonly used drugs, according to JAMA, are for hypertension, heart failure and diabetes, all of which can be related to obsesity.
“Americans are people who use drugs,” said David Herzberg, an associate professor of history at the University at Buffalo, whose primary focus on psychiatric drugs. “These kind of promises, these kind of Utopian ideals intermesh with promises of health in ways that change what we think health means.
“If I can take a pill and move from being sweaty palmed and anxious and miserable, to feeling relaxed and like I can handle this, that’s actually magic,” Herzberg said.
The problem with that kind of magic: sometimes the side effects are worse than the condition. Millions are spent to market prescription drugs, and because of that, they foster an inherent, blind truth, experts say.
“Medicine and pharmacy have developed, I like to call it a brand as non-commercial,” Herzberg said. “Their job in the world is not to sell you things, it’s not a consumer culture. Their job is to heal illness.”
But sometimes, they do a whole lot more. And that can have negative side effects.
“The system has gone dysfunctional. There is no doubt about it,” said Raffaella Marcantonio, a naturalpathic doctor in north Buffalo. “It’s not that I’m saying this medicine is horrible, prescriptive isn’t horrible, but it’s not my first pick.
“At one time, it was sexy and seductive,” she added. “I can just take a pill. Why do I have to change what I gotta eat? Why do I gotta exercise? I don’t want to work that hard. I just want to take a pill, work 40-80 hours a week and do what I gotta do. The reality is, you can’t.”
Marcantonio says the culture that’s quick to pick up a pill, is looking for a quick fix. She said while that’s common, it can also be dangerous.
“If you listen real close at the end, they’re doing something distracting so you don’t hear the dangerous side effects that may occur,” Marcantonio said. “So, yeah we controlled your rheumatoid arthritis, but you got leukemia instead. Is that the tradeoff?
“Your health, your food, your exercise, where you work the stressors in your life, hugely impact how you feel and how you are going to recover or not recover,” she said.
Despite the risks, the pharmaceutical industry is a 300-billion-dollar-a-year business. Experts say it’s not some grand scheme by drug companies, or pushy doctors, or even a blind-faith public. It’s just become the American way.
“It hasn’t been a conspiracy of the drug companies, it hasn’t been a conspiracy of the doctors, and it hasn’t been a venality of the people, like having lost their strong character at some point,” Herzberg said. “It’s a facet of what our society does. This is one of the expectations that Americans have, that society will provide for them, which is drugs that will ease suffering.”
In many or even most cases, it does, Herzberg said. But is it worth the risk? That’s for the individual patient to decide.
“You have to decide what level of risk you’re willing to handle, and what steps could be taken to reduce the risks,” he said.