The pharmaceutical industry now targets healthy people as a prime market
IN HIS FAMOUS novel Brave New World, Aldous Huxley portrayed a failed 25th-century utopia blissed out on a single substance known as soma. That?s nothing compared to a much nearer future envisioned by drug industry critic Pat Mooney. Alarmed by the growing effort to market pills for ?making well people better,? Mooney says we?re about to be tempted by a wide array of ?human performance drugs? that will do everything from boosting memory to letting people eat like pigs without getting fat.
While these new kinds of ?Viagra for the brain? might sound like fun, Mooney warns that the real effects may not be so benign, including their use for mind control. Meanwhile, drug manufacturers will be distracted from developing cures for many real diseases that continue to torment the poor.
Writing in the environmental magazine World Watch (July/Aug. 2002), Mooney, a longtime critic of biotechnology, notes that focusing on the sick is not profitable, at least from Big Pharma?s point of view. Most folks get well or die, neither of which is good for business. There?s far more money in serving customers who are basically well.
According to Mooney, of the 1,223 drugs brought to market between 1975 and 1996, only 13 targeted the deadly tropical diseases that afflict millions. He says it?s even less likely now that the industry will focus on suffering in the developing world because large Western pharmaceutical corporations control much of the world?s drug market.
Mooney heads the Canadian-based ETC Group, a nonprofit organization that monitors corporations? plans to patent life forms and genes. He notes that biotechnology research is now merging with the quest to develop performance-enhancing drugs, or what Mooney calls ?HyPEs.? For instance, Northwestern University has patented a gene that is thought to regulate circadian rhythm?the 24-hour pattern that determines many bodily processes. The hope is that the patent will allow researchers to control any future use of the gene in designing drugs for jet lag, drowsiness, and other conditions.
Meanwhile, drugs for specific disorders are finding wider markets. Provigil, a treatment for narcolepsy, a sleep disorder, is attracting attention as a possible alertness aid for healthy people. Beta blockers, once used mainly to treat heart disorders, have become a drug of choice among nervous musicians and public speakers because of the drugs? ability to alleviate stage fright. (Mooney cites a study that found that 27 percent of symphony orchestra musicians use them.)
Mooney sees a more serious potential for abuse in ?cognitive enhancers,? also known as ?nootropics? or ?smart drugs.? The market for them is already vast, he says, earning $94.5 million for the treatment of Alzheimer?s disease in 1995 alone. A new generation of such drugs could reap larger profits if they were used to boost memory or block trauma recollection in otherwise healthy people.
Mooney envisions a brave new world in which teachers, employers, or governments will use such substances to increase performance?or even control dissent. ?Mood-altering drugs that dispel discontent might be pressed upon workers,? he says. And why stop there? Mooney foresees the day we?ll not only make our own soldiers brighter and more alert, but also dose our enemies with anti-smart drugs that will make them stupid and sluggish.
It wasn?t supposed to be this way, contends Mooney, who won the Right Livelihood Award (the ?alternative Nobel Prize?) in 1985 for his efforts to save the world?s genetic plant heritage. The hope a decade ago was that drug companies would collaborate with plant breeders to develop nutriceuticals?technologically enhanced food?to help feed the world?s 820 million malnourished poor. Instead, he says, the goal today is a drug that will let the world?s affluent eat all they want and never gain weight.
To reverse this trend, Mooney proposes wresting control of the research agenda from Big Pharma and returning it to the service of public health. ?Until we dispel the myth that the biotech and pharmaceutical industries are working on our behalf,? he maintains, ?the prognosis is poor.?
Miriam Karmel is a Minneapolis writer.