New conference addresses social implications of pharmaceutical companies marketing drugs for minor disorders.

Pharmaceutical companies are marketing yesterday’s unfortunate discomfort as today’s official disorder, says an international group of scientists and physicians who gathered this week in Australia for the first ever Conference on Disease-Mongering. The meeting—and a series of papers published to coincide with it—addresses the social, financial and medical repercussions of disease mongering and calls on pharmaceutical companies, doctors and the general public to help put a stop to this practice.

David Henry, a physician at the public health school of University of Newcastle, New South Wales, defines disease mongering as the deliberate expansion of a diagnostic gray area to encompass conditions that would not normally be considered abnormal, and then prescribing expensive medications for those borderline sufferers. He offers the marketing of the drug Viagra as a prime example.

“Here’s a drug that was developed to treat men with erectile dysfunction who had underlying medical diseases: vascular insufficiency, diabetes, spinal cord trauma, multiple sclerosis,” Henry said. “But what the manufacturer Pfizer did was to expand the market for the drug, because just to treat only the people who everybody agreed should receive treatment if they wanted it wouldn’t give them enough money.”

Pfizer ended up marketing the drug to younger, healthy men whose erectile dysfunction, while perhaps quite frustrating, did not qualify as a medical condition needing treatment before Pfizer launched its campaign, according to Henry. Several years and many thousands of late night television jokes later, the drug is ubiquitous and highly profitable.

“They basically sold it to healthy people, with a promise that it made you better,” Henry said.

Henry also counts restless leg syndrome and some psychiatric disorders as examples of conditions expanded beyond the limits of normal dysfunction, solely for profit.

He points to the unregulated direct-to-consumer advertising market in the US as a major culprit aiding in disease-mongering, since in most other countries drug companies are not permitted to advertise directly to the public. He called for greater skepticism on the part of the consumer—as well as the media and the medical community—to help eliminate the problem.

“The idea that we should all conform to some notion of appearance, behavior, activity, and that if we don’t, if we deviate slightly from that, there’s a company there marketing a product for you—I think it’s a pretty scary idea,” he said. “Because it’s gone way beyond any notion of disease or disorder to some normative notions of behavior and appearance.”

Ken Johnson, senior vice president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, denied the prevalence of disease-mongering in a statement to the press, claiming that drug companies sought merely to educate the public, not to promote unnecessary medications.

“The old saying ‘knowledge is power’ is very real and very true, particularly as it relates to patients learning about a new disease or health condition,” he said. “Without this knowledge, many patients run the risk of not recognizing early symptoms of debilitating diseases. Worse, they risk not getting the treatment they need to live longer, healthier lives.”

Peter Lurie, the deputy director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, a consumer advocacy organization, argues that drug companies take active, unethical roles in promoting drugs that may not be needed, opening the unsuspecting public up to harmful side effects. In the past, he said, drug companies have formed or funded front groups to promote awareness of a disease, or provided very specific sponsorship to a scientific study of a medication.

“The way those [studies] are done is to employ a very loose definition of what the syndrome is, such that a large group of people will answer ‘yes’ to the question of ‘Do you have it?’” Lurie said.

Originally published April 17, 2006


Share this Stumbleupon Reddit Email + More


  • Ideas

    I Tried Almost Everything Else

    John Rinn, snowboarder, skateboarder, and “genomic origamist,” on why we should dumpster-dive in our genomes and the inspiration of a middle-distance runner.

  • Ideas

    Going, Going, Gone

    The second most common element in the universe is increasingly rare on Earth—except, for now, in America.

  • Ideas

    Earth-like Planets Aren’t Rare

    Renowned planetary scientist James Kasting on the odds of finding another Earth-like planet and the power of science fiction.

The Seed Salon

Video: conversations with leading scientists and thinkers on fundamental issues and ideas at the edge of science and culture.

Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?

Video: Seed revisits the questions C.P. Snow raised about science and the humanities 50 years by asking six great thinkers, Where are we now?

Saved by Science

Audio slideshow: Justine Cooper's large-format photographs of the collections behind the walls of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Universe in 2009

In 2009, we are celebrating curiosity and creativity with a dynamic look at the very best ideas that give us reason for optimism.

Revolutionary Minds
The Interpreters

In this installment of Revolutionary Minds, five people who use the new tools of science to educate, illuminate, and engage.

The Seed Design Series

Leading scientists, designers, and architects on ideas like the personal genome, brain visualization, generative architecture, and collective design.

The Seed State of Science

Seed examines the radical changes within science itself by assessing the evolving role of scientists and the shifting dimensions of scientific practice.

A Place for Science

On the trail of the haunts, homes, and posts of knowledge, from the laboratory to the field.


Witness the science. Stunning photographic portfolios from the pages of Seed magazine.

SEEDMAGAZINE.COM by Seed Media Group. ©2005-2015 Seed Media Group LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Sites by Seed Media Group: Seed Media Group | ScienceBlogs | Research Blogging | SEEDMAGAZINE.COM