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Don’t help Big Pharma sell sexual sickness

April 11th, 2006

Dr Petra

Today’s the first day of the Inaugural Conference on Disease Mongering at the University of Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia.

The conference aims to bring to the public’s attention how Big Pharma has medicalised issues such as irritable bowel disease, male and female sexual dysfunction, ADHD and restless leg syndrome.

Many of the conference speakers have prepared papers about ‘selling sickness’ which you can read in the current edition of the free to access Public Library of Science, or if you want to know more about disease mongering you can visit these useful related links provided by the conference organisers.

The issue of medicalising certain conditions whilst ignoring other areas of need (for example affordable medicines for the developing world) continues to be a major problem for healthcare globally.

The media has responded positively to this conference, with a lot of media coverage urging doctors and patients to be aware of the activities of Big Pharma.

Interestingly though the media coverage hasn’t looked at itself within this debate. Many of the messages from the pharmaceutical industry reach the public via press coverage. It might be a story about a forthcoming wonder drug, or perhaps a case of a new disease or disorder, but it’s the press who’re putting those stories out there.

If we take sexual functioning as an example, the pharmaceutical industry want us to see not having sex as a disease, since they’re working to find ‘cures’. They want their sex medications to be seen as lifestyle enhancers, and they want us to feel the need to take sex meds to boost our desire, increase our arousal, and improve our capacity for orgasm and sexual functioning. They use the media to whet our appetites with teaser stories about forthcoming sex products and to constantly remind us how we ought to be sexually functioning (so that when we don’t measure up we feel the need to reach for a cure). Many journalists I’ve spoken to interpret these stories as exciting new scientific breakthroughs – they don’t even know often that they’re being spun a line.

The media has been at the forefront of promoting erectile enhancing drugs, clamouring for drugs to ‘cure’ premature ejaculation, female sexual dysfunction, and testosterone supplements for both sexes.

Until the media take a critical stance on the PR stories they’re sent from pharmaceutical companies (or academic departments funded by pharmaceutical companies) we’ll continue to have them offering free advertising to Big Pharma.

Hopefully this conference and the press coverage it generates will allow a wider discussion about disease mongering. And perhaps it may even encourage some journalists to reflect on the role they play in this area.

Because if they don’t report, pharmaceuticals will find it a whole lot more difficult to sell sickness.

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