Branding Diseases to Sell Cures

Pharmaceutical companies have mastered the art of "branding" diseases to sell more drugs, according to Carl Elliott, M.D., Ph.D., author of White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine. "Branding" means shaping public perception of a disease to make treatment more appealing to potential patients. Once people are convinced they have a new condition, they will seek treatment on their own, and new drugs will sell themselves. Disease-branding works if conditions can be portrayed as shameful, or if they are stigmatized. For example, to sell the drug Detrol, Pharmacia re-branded urinary incontinence as "overactive bladder," and used advertising to convince people that they no longer actually have to lose bladder control to have a condition -- they just have to need to go to the bathroom a lot. Neil Wolf, Vice President of Pharmacia, explained how re-branding worked in a 2002 presentation called "Positioning Detrol: Creating a Disease." By making people think they have a new condition called "overactive bladder," the company created a market of 21 million potential patients. Other conditions re-packaged through branding include "social anxiety disorder" (which used to be called "shyness") and "gastro-esphageal reflux disease" (formerly called "heartburn").


One of the more obvious examples is "Restless Leg Syndrome". Had anyone ever heard of such a thing before there was a cure to sell?

As a matter of fact, yes. If you had any idea what it is like to suffer from RLS, you wouldn't find it so laughable.

I, siblings, one parent have had this. It was a family "oddity" long before it was branded. I will agree, it did get promoted way beyond its 'problematic effect'. I've read descriptions where meds might be useful, but I think that is extreme - most people, for generations, have dealt with it without prescription meds. We didn't have a medical name for it, but did call it "restless legs". None of us had it to desperation, but certainly a major sleep disruption when it 'acted up'. I once read it's likely to continue, get worse, with age, but I'm now on the 'senior' side of 60 and haven't been bothered much for some years. I also read there's some thought it's neurological (nerve endings); 'special smoke' helped me back when I indulged.

All that said - I've heard people speak of their meds for assorted common health issues in a co-dependent "I'm so vulnerable" way - I mean people who appear to have ordinary, 'common level, complaint. I'm sometimes shocked at how we've "agreed" that we need meds at every turn!

I wonder if for some people, appointments and meds are how they experience feeling cared for. That raises of a different question about our culture, an important one!!

We've accepted "expert opinion" without first asking some critical questions. (IF after questions we decide the expert advice fits our condition, then meds, or other remedies, might be the way to go. But we've got to THINK first!) :)

See the New Yorker article on the creation of a market for fosomax and other bone density remedies for the classic story on this. I take some exception to inclusion of gastric reflux in this list. It's a real and painful condition that can lead to much more serious disease. It's a problem for many people and proton pump inhibitors such as omeprazole make a huge difference.

It may be wise just may be wise to look at your diet, the way you live, your stress level, or other things that may cause heartburn before you easily jump at synthetic drugs that do not look at the cause and as such do not take away your heartburn.

To take away the pain and the risk of making the ailment worse (it may affect your stomach in the long run in various stages) you might look at natural cures. I am sure that in the US there are numerous brands that sell that so go inform yourself. It's better for your body and it actually takes away the ailment. It does not in the long run if your diet or whatever lies at the heart of the heartburn is not attended.

I used natural stuff and yes, it worked. But of course, one can easily go to the drugstore or doctor and prompto! Not thinking makes you a slave to big pharma.

I've heard of serious issues with this, but I also think common heartburn (no fun either) has, because of this branding practice, become a "worrisome" experience. Before, many more people felt generally healthy except for brief explainable discomfort. That's what gets me about the branding - ordinary and brief health experiences get turned into medical appointments, prescription meds, and actually increase level of worry.

I worked summers as a teen in a mid-sized mid-western hospital in the late 1950's, early 60's, serving largely a farm-based and suburban population. Many of the conditions now branded and worrisome, were at the time considered brief, fleeting, explainable (pulled muscles, wrong food). No one sought medical advice on these. Plenty of people, including farmers who did a lot of hard labor-intensive work, lived into their 80'-90's without joint replacements. Generalized physical labor did not result in wear/tear of 'repetitive' or intense sports activity, so I've explained some of the difference to myself that way - but I do wonder about all the joint replacement!

I wonder how these pharma company execs can sleep at night. My favorite hyped up commercial i see on television is the "lashes not long enough" and they have a made up disease name for it. Give us your two cents on disease branding at

It's funny that this article was released as I was just speaking to a young fellow (Gen-Yer) about the subject today.

He mentioned that "There are so much more diseases today!" .. which of course is not true. I mentioned that there is just a greater public awareness on any illness, all thanks to the might of the pharma industry.

In fact, mortality rates should be lower since the science of medicine has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few decades.

Watch the esteemed author of this article squirm as he is asked the tough questions: