Pharmaceutical Drug Marketing to Our Children: Bordering on Criminal

by Helen Saul Case
(OMNS June 11, 2013) I can’t be the only one noticing. In fact I’m pretty
sure I’m not. Drugs are being marketed directly to our children. If you
don’t believe me, just take a closer look at the commercials plastered
about our TV shows at an estimated and alarming 80 an hour (1), many
targeting our little ones with images of animals and cartoons. Everywhere
in the world, except the United States and New Zealand, direct-to-consumer
pharmaceutical drug advertising is prohibited (2). Perhaps it’s time to
think about why it should be banned here, too.

TV ads are designed to make an impact. They are meant to foster brand
familiarity and loyalty. They appeal to our emotions. They often emphasize
our shortcomings as fathers, mothers, friends, and spouses. Commercials
influence us into thinking that using a particular product is a normal,
ordinary, good idea: an everyday thing to do that everybody is doing.

I remember being shocked the first time I saw a pharmaceutical drug ad on
TV. I couldn’t believe that anyone would take a medication with a list of
side effects that seemed so much worse than the disease it supposedly
helped treat. Now, it is easy to become numb to them. The sheer volume of
drug advertisements we are inundated with on a regular basis practically
ensures we accept them as a natural part of life. Now that their presence
isn’t as shocking, it is easy to pay more attention to the beautiful
imagery on the screen rather than the described dangers of the drug. I can
rattle off brand name after brand name, and I’m not even paying attention,
nor do I have any interest in them.

Until recently. When my baby girl starting pointing at cartoons and animals
in pharmaceutical ads, I had had enough.
Profits and Preschoolers

There is no money in selling something nobody believes in. Drug companies
want their commercials to be appealing. When I was little, I once asked my
dad why they called a certain candy a “Thin Mint.” He said because no one
would buy them if they called them “Fat Mints.”

Drug ads are alluring, especially to young eyes. The commercial for the
drug Abilify, a buddy for your antidepressant, has a friendly little
cartoon “A” coming to the rescue of a happy little Rx pill and a lovely
cartoon woman. Variants of their commercial showcase a childish depression
cloud and a rainy cartoon umbrella. A quick glance would have you believing
you are watching children’ s programming meant to teach about the alphabet
or the weather.

The antidepressant Zoloft bouncing cartoon ball can’t be described as
anything but cute (who doesn’t love a cowlick?) and even more “adult”
commercials like those for the inhaler Spiriva have real live elephants
capturing the attention of my toddler.

How about those positively mesmerizing Lunesta commercials with the
peaceful glowing butterflies? (She loves those.) An entire nation appears
to be on drugs as the butterflies, indicated with thousands of illuminated
specks, glow across a map of the United States. They capture your attention
as a voice softly coos, “*Join us.*” This particular ad doesn’t even tell
you the name of the drug, and therefore doesn’t have to tell you what is
wrong with the drug, either. The commercial advises you to seek out their
website, ProjectLuna. com, which dons a name rather similar to their
“unnamed” product. Of course, they’ve already made you familiar with their
drug in numerous other broadcasts, so they don’t even *need* to tell you
what it’s for. It’s kind of like the Nike Swoosh. We all know what it means.

Do adults really need cartoons to understand what a drug can do? Or is
there a more sinister plot afoot?
Drugs for the Whole Family

Some of you are telling me to turn my TV off. What business has a toddler
watching “Let’ s Make a Deal” anyway. And while I hear you, I can tell you
that unless I leave the TV off all the time, she’s going to see a drug ad
sooner or later. She does love books and magazines, especially ones with
animals. Maybe we will just stick to those. Of course, the most recent
publication we received wasn’t any better.

My cat receives a magazine in the mail from her veterinarian. It encourages
her to come in for her checkups. She can’t read very well, but if she
could, she’d see the pages are dotted with drug ads appealing to the
emotions of her owner.

Drugging pets is big business. For example, Pfizer Animal Health is now
Zoetis, a multi-billion dollar company, just one in a multi-billion dollar
industry. There is real money to be made medicating our “companion
animals.” And unless you have some sort of animal prescription drug
coverage, which is highly unlikely, you will be paying for those meds out
of pocket. And we are. A New York Times article about our “Pill-Popping
Pets” indicated that “surveys by the American Pet Products Manufacturers
Association found that 77 percent of dog owners and 52 percent of cat
owners gave their animals some sort of medication in 2006” (3). That means
half to three-quarters of our furry friends are being drugged. By us.
(Apparently, there is even a pill for all that puking my cat has been doing
(4). Who knew?)
A Lesson to Be Learned, Again

Have we forgotten about Joe? Perhaps we should take a step back in time and
consider the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Joe Camel, the cartoon
promotion for Camel cigarettes, “which the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
alleges was successful in appealing to many children and adolescents under
18, induced many young people to begin smoking or to continue smoking
cigarettes and as a result caused significant injury to their health and
safety.” R.J. Reynolds was accused of promoting a “dangerous&quo t; product
through “a campaign that was attractive to those too young to purchase
cigarettes legally.” Joe Camel was “as recognizable to kids as Mickey
Mouse.” After the campaign started, the FTC claimed “the percentage of kids
who smoked Camels became larger than the percentage of adults who smoked
Camels” (5). Were kids starting to smoke, and continuing to smoke, because
of good ol’ Joe? Were they too young to know what hit ’em?

As to “medicine, ” I used to use very little of this stuff for infants. Now,
I categorically state: just say no to drugs. – (Pediatrician Ralph K.
Campbell, M.D.)
We’re Asking for It

Maybe kids can’t get their own prescription, but they know someone who can
get it for them. We lead by example. We are going to our doctors and *asking
* for drugs for ourselves and for our children. Our doctors are all too
happy to dole them out. They’ll even throw in some free samples to get you
started. There are billions of dollars spent every year advertising drugs
directly to us, and it is working. The most heavily advertised
pharmaceuticals see the largest increase in prescriptions and purchases (6).
A Slippery Slope

I believe advertising drugs in a child-friendly way is dangerous. For
example, what kid doesn’t have a bad day? Or a ton of them? Being moody is
part of being human, and it is certainly part of being an adolescent.
Putting the idea in a young mind that being upset is an emotion that should
be medicated is tricky territory. Critics of the pharmaceutical industry
agree that “a lot of money can be made from healthy people who believe they
are sick” (7).

Kids want to be happy. Parents want to help their children feel better.
They may see minimized risk due to the positive associations drawn from
drug commercials. We may be overconfident in drugs and in the doctors that
prescribe them. We may think, “Well, if my physician gave it to me, it must
be okay.”

Making drugs a common and everyday part of life: it appears that’s what
pharmaceutical companies are trying to do. I think back to school trips I
took with my middle school students. We are required to carry their
medications when we travel, and each year, over the course of many, the
hefty Ziploc bags I lugged around filled with medications grew and grew
until I practically had my backpack overflowing with them. Eight to twelve
kids, and a backpack full of meds. What was happening? I was surprised, but
perhaps I shouldn’ t be: One out of every two people in America is taking
prescription medications (8). And so too is their cat.

It took 23 years before Joe Camel was taken out. How long before we pop the
Zoloft bubble and squash the Nasonex bumblebee?
Safety of Supplements versus the Dangers of Drugs

I believe drug treatment for disease should be last on the list, and
nutrition should be first. Are there folks that need medicines? Yes. But
what about natural, effective and safe ways we can combat allergies,
depression, and trouble sleeping? I haven’t seen any commercials about
niacin (B3) for mental disorders. Or about the importance of high-dose
vitamin C. Or the health benefits of optimal doses of vitamin D. We often
turn away from nutrition and toward medication. This, ladies, gentlemen,
and children, is wrong.
Just Say No

Drugs are dangerous (9). The front page of Zoloft’s own website states
“Antidepressan t medicines may increase suicidal thoughts or actions in some
children, teenagers, and young adults especially within the first few
months of treatment” (10). *With over a hundred thousand deaths every year
due to pharmaceuticals taken as directed* (11), I really don’t want my kid
to be among them.

The old adage is true: just say no to drugs. And if the results of the “Say
No to Drugs” campaign (12) are any indication of how well it works to do
so, it will be a sorry success indeed.

(*Helen Saul Case is the author of* The Vitamin Cure for Women’s Health
Problems *and coauthor of  “Vegetable Juicing for Everyone.”
Notes from Dr Bate – editor

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