A Nation Of Pill-Takers

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This story originally aired on Oct. 22, 2006.

How's this for a startling statistic: the United States makes up just a measly 5 percent of the world's population, but it accounts for a whopping 42 percent of the world's spending on prescription drugs — more than $250 billion just last year.

"The great three words in American life are go, go and go. So you want to wake up and swallow something and be fixed," historian Douglas Brinkley tells CBS Sunday Morning contributor Susan Spencer.

For example, hard-charging advertising executive Jerry Della Femina chugs down nearly a dozen pills each day for a variety of ailments — problems he actually has and problems he just worries about.

"You don't know how sick you'd be if you didn't take it," Della Femina said.

His forefathers would understand, Brinkley said.

"If you look back at American history, you'll find time and time again the old medicine shows. They travel around the country, people would say, you know I've got arthritis or you have a sore throat or a headache, I'll take the magic bullet the magic pill," Brinkley explained.

It's more than just culture, says Dr. Marcus Reidenberg of Weill Cornell Medical College. After all, these drugs do tend to work.

"If the individual is troubled enough by the problem, knows what the risks are of the medicine, (including the fact that these new medicines — we don't know what all the risks are), and still feels that the benefit is worthwhile — I don't have a problem with it," Reidenberg said.

But critics of the pharmaceutical industry have big problems with it, worried that Americans are running to their doctors demanding the latest pill for the latest diseases based on the latest information they got on television.

The average TV viewer is bombarded with an estimated 10 prescription drug ads a day.

Only viewers half the globe away, in New Zealand, get to share this experience. Prescription drug ads are banned everywhere else.

At Brand Institute, Inc., a Miami marketing firm, naming, or re-naming, syndromes for drug companies is 20 percent of the business.

The key, says company president Jim Dettore, is a name that describes the symptom in a nice way, making it OK to seek help, with, preferably, the client's drug.

"These acronyms allow them to communicate more effectively with less pressure," Dettore said.

It works — every dollar spent on advertising, produces more than $4 in sales.

Ad man Jerry Della Femina, who has no pharmaceutical clients, said just look at what's happened with cholesterol.

"People discuss their cholesterol count on their first date. They go out and, 'Hi. My cholesterol count is 150.'

"Well mine happens to be 175. The more they see something on television, the more they react to these commercials, the more that they will sell. And, then you'll start to see everyone is taking it," Della Femina said.

But New York University clinical psychologist Leonore Tiefer sees real risk in all of this pill taking.

"There is no drug trial in the world where anyone is taking five drugs simultaneously and they are looking at the interactions. So why is it a bad idea? I don't want to be part of some experiment," Tiefer said.

Its "disease mongering" Tiefer calls it, and just to sell drugs.

Dettore explained that companies like his are simply responding to the needs of consumers.

"Baby boomers are saying, 'I wanna live. I don't wanna sneeze. I don't wanna cough. I don't wanna run around with a runny nose. I want — I wanna be perfect,'" he said.

"As long as there's innovation there will be brands. And as long as there's brands there will be syndrome names," Dettore said. "And yes, there will be sales."