Kids on Drugs

March 17, 2006

There’s been a serious uptick in the number of children being prescribed anti-psychotic drugs.

What’s strange is that more than half of these prescriptions are being given for attention deficit and other non-psychotic conditions for which these medications have not been proven to work.

The annual number of children prescribed anti-psychotic drugs jumped fivefold between 1995 and 2002, to an estimated 2.5 million, the study said. That is an increase from 8.6 out of every 1,000 children in the mid-1990s to nearly 40 out of 1,000.

The increase corresponds with the launch and heavy marketing of some expensive new anti-psychotic drugs, which have not been established as safe or effective in children.

Lest you think aggressive drug marketing to consumers doesn’t work, I submit to you specimen A, my big sis, who has worked for Big Pharma since the early 90s. A chemical engineer at Eli Lilly, she witnessed the birth of drugvertising. Lilly leadership initially said no, we won’t go that route, only to see a competitor’s drug outsell Prozac dramatically in the wake of a pervasive marketing campaign. In order to compete, they had to begin dedicating major bucks to marketing drugs directly to consumers. And here we are!

Drug companies today spend nearly 3 times more on advertising and marketing the newest drugs than they do on research and development.  The mega-bucks spent on direct-to-consumer advertising have definitely paid off:

The National Institute for Health Care Management found that nearly half(47.8 percent) of the increase in retail spending on prescription drugs from 1999 to 2000 resulted from increases in sales of the 50 most heavily advertised drugs. The number for prescriptions written for those drugs rose nearly 25 percent, compared to an increase of only 4.3 percent for less heavily advertised drugs.

Are we suckers for drug advertising or what?

Last night I was talking about the surge in medicated children with a co-worker whose nephew is a high-energy, very physically active boy just like mine. My co-worker, who is bipolar and medicated herself, said she thought it was very wrong. She mentioned a bumper sticker she had seen that read “Ritalin: Easier than Parenting.” We joked about Tom Cruise’s widely scorned babblings.

I, too, believe that the massive medicating of mainly boys between the ages of 6 and 14 is highly suspect. But since having a child, I’ve grown superstitious in this particular way: I fear that the moment I pass judgement on another parent for their choices, a karmic snowball will be launched in my direction that will shatter my smug certainty.

That said, when I see ANY widespread use of pharmaceuticals, it signals to me a problem that warrants closer inspection. Western medicine specializes in managing symptoms more than it does preventing disease. We might not understand at this point why so many kids (especially boys) are being diagnosed as ADD, or even what that is, other than a collection of behaviors. Reaching for meds is quicker than the interminable process of analyzing diet, relationships, genes, social expectations, exercise patterns, present education methods, environmental factors, etc. to find possible links and causes. Over time, parents will have more tools in their toolbox. My hope is that understanding of the causes of ADD and related diagnoses bloom faster than the ranks of medicated children.