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Parading ailments to sell pills

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Since 1997, when the US first allowed TV ads that tout the latest drugs, Americans have had to watch a parade of ailments they knew little about. Selling sickness is now a multibillion-dollar business. Some critics joke that drug companies may soon sell a pill for the mass hypochondria their ads seem to create.

Pushing prescription drugs directly at consumers is still a big experiment in the US. (The only other developed nation to allow it is New Zealand.) Many critics say the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. Among the problems is that the advertisements bear little relationship to the bulk of the country's health needs.

Tighter regulations of the ads are needed by the Food and Drug Administration to prevent abuses, and new FDA rules for the industry are expected soon.

Most important, the FDA should focus on ways to prevent an increasing overuse of drugs caused by the ads and help counter their effects of turning people away from nondrug treatments, or even nonmedical ones.

Some in the medical community are pushing back against the selling of drugs to treat mild conditions that are rarely serious or the attempts to recategorize common aspects of life, such as shyness, as medical conditions. By doing so, drugmakers can expand or even create markets for their products. Sometimes they even invent new conditions, such as "pre-hypertension," and then offer a drug for it.

"There's a lot of money to be made from telling healthy people they're sick," concludes an article in the April 13 edition of BMJ, a British medical journal, titled "Selling sickness: the pharmaceutical industry and disease mongering."

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