Pharmaceutical companies can change culture

Surely pharmaceutical drugs help millions of people survive and thrive, right? The pharmaceutical companies selling the drugs, however,  are just that, companies. Like most companies, pharmaceutical companies are out to make economic profit.  The illnesses the companies’ drugs treat are importantly shaped by culture.  GlaxoSmithKline is a pharmaceutical company out to make a profit, and it saw an economic opportunity when in 1990, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRIs) sales grew by 18 percent and grossed over 13 hundred dollars.   This model could be implemented outside of the U.S. context to gain even more profit, right? In doing so, GlaxoSmithKline effectively ignored cultural complexities when marketing their popular SSRI Paxil to the Japanese.  To garner support for the antidepressant in Japan, where depression and sadness were understood as more chronic and stigmatized, the pharmaceutical company would have to target the illness and the culture, not the ill. The company essentially manufactured the Western understanding of depression in Japan prior to prescribing their antidepressants.  They created depressed people where previously there were few.  Mapping Western notions of depression and treatment onto other cultures solely for profit obscures the social meaning of unique experiences.

Read more about this in Ethan Watters’ book “Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the Human Psyche”.

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6 thoughts on “Pharmaceutical companies can change culture

  1. This reminds me of the “placebo effect”. When, in research, subjects/patients are given an inert pill–unbeknownst to them–and told that it may improve their condition (or whatever their “symptoms are”), this type of deception may cause the patient to believe the treatment will actually help them. This strong belief has the ability to produce a therapeutic effect (a subjective perception) in which the subject begins acting in such a manner or claiming to feel the effects of the “drug” or lack of symptoms.

    However, in this case GlaxoSmithKline effectively used a type of deception when marketing their popular SSRI, Paxil, to the Japanese by inundating their minds with a Western understanding of depression. And in turn creating this false perception of depression.

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  2. The thing that really shocked me, probably naively, that these companies are so profit-driven that they will change peoples’ understandings of medical/mental illness just to make more money. The entire concept is so unbelievably immoral, I can’t fathom the conversations GlaxoSmithKline were having at the time.

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  3. Anything for a buck. Anything.
    It’s the “me too” drugs that infuriate me. After the patent on Paxil runs out, other companies will begin producing ‘paxil’, call it ‘daxil’, and sell it for 200% less – which tells you, of course, GSK was severely overcharging you (or your insurance company). Which in turn should make you wonder if they really are trying to assuage your illness at all, or just trying to make a buck. Oh, and then ‘daxil’ will be on sale at Wal-Mart for $1.00 during one of their “$1 for generics!” sales. And they will have bought it in mass quantities for $0.40 per bottle.
    Whatcha gonna do?

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  4. I completely agree, this is completely insane. The subject of companies versus researchers came up in my Bio Senior Seminar. And going into the pharmaceutical industry I obviously have things to say. Basically what we were talking about in this seminar was the stages of the vaccine for malaria. And I guess this could work for any drug. But basically whether it would be ethical for companies to get the bucks out of any potential treatment even if it was in the early stages or should they wait until the whole drug is known inside and out. Also it’s not the companies doing the research on these drugs so not all company employees understand the consequences of various side effects introduced in different cultures, so their attempts to save the world while making lots of money are skewed. In essence I don’t think all companies send out products that are known to hurt people if gotten into the wrong hands but they go by what researchers tell them. So if research finds a drug to help against malaria or depression, even if all tests are not finished, most people in general not even only company employees would want to drug out there in hopes for good results. And if the company makes money off of it, then it’s an added bonus.

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  5. I completely agree with the marketing and economic interpretations of the phenomenon. And I think the cultural component here is really interesting because of the differences between Eastern and Western societies. As Sara mentioned, the Japanese view depression as more of an illness. On the other hand, I think that many Americans are self-deprecating and oftentimes are affected in this way. Many therapists will comment about how entire populations can be depressed to a certain extent, due to environment. I think that extending this philosophy as a marketing took is downright pathetic, but I also think that this shows that mood is often truly a product of cultural understandings.

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  6. I also think that this relates to the phenomenon of globalization, in which more people are having contact with lots of other types of people, thus “homogenizing” the world. This is easily visible in the reduction of number of languages spoken and the application of English as a “standard” language in many countries. This is applicable because it seems that these pharmaceutical companies are marketing as if everybody and their culture are the same. There are obviously many environmental effects as Arielle said, and these effects are capable of producing a completely different population with different needs! Long story short, you got it Amy! It’s all buisness for GlaxoSmithKline!

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