Saturday, January 30, 2010

Medicine Show

Last week, I was in a branch of a local, well-known chemist chain (or drugstore, as they are known to people who also use words like fender, faucet and filibuster). I was ostensibly there to stock up on my usual supplies of razor blades, corn plasters and sanitary napkins. The store in question featured a typical combination of small size and overstaffing that always sees several shop girls descending on me to ask me what I'm looking for just as I'm trying to decide whether to get a box of Ribbed or Exciter.

After selecting my party hats of choice, I looked up and noticed that, not atypically, one entire wall of the shop was filled with non-prescription pills, all claiming to do this, that and the other and to treat conditions that most of us presumably never knew that we were suffering from in the first place. As George Orwell once said, the true genius is to sell you the solution AND the problem.

Many of you may be one of a new breed of pill poppers, swayed by the claims made by this new multi-million dollar industry and persuaded that a good diet and a bit of exercise are no longer enough to maintain decent health. No, you have to pop pills and vitamins until you rattle like a half empty jar of peanuts when you walk down the street.

Fish oil, antioxidants, detox treatments, you name it, capitalism has to expand in order to survive these mountebanks of multivitamins, these pseudoscientific sellers of snake oil, have now sown seeds of paranoia in perfectly healthy people. Nobody ever became a multimillionaire by advising people to eat more fruit and vegetables and so, in our money obsessed world, decent, rigorous medical science has been debased by this confidence trick. Perhaps it all started in World War II when the British Royal Air Force put about the myth that carrots contained chemicals that enabled its pilots to see the German planes in the dark in order to disguise the fact that they had invented radar. Who knows?

Most of the world's drugs were in fact discovered and synthesized between around 1930 and 1980. Wave after wave of genuine miracles came along. However, after this low hanging fruit had been picked, things became much harder for the pharmaceutical industry and so new conditions and pathologies had to be invented that could be nixed with pre-existing drugs or quack remedies. Whoever heard of Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) or Night Eating Syndrome before about ten years ago?

Looking around the shop’s well-stocked shelves, I could see how lucrative the non-prescription pill game is, as most jars cost between Rp.150,000 and Rp.500,000. I picked up a few and had a good look at them. One of them was called 'Nutrimax Renew Life' and was priced at Rp.261,000 per jar of 60. Perhaps the stuff would be cheap at ten times the price however seeing as it claimed to offer weight loss, increased energy and libido, a more youthful appearance, lower blood pressure, more restful sleep, improved emotional mood, increased lean muscle mass and enhanced memory and vision. All in one tablet! A two-month course of these and you'd probably live forever.

The most prevalent kind of tablets in the shop though, and the latest pill popping craze, were called things like 'Brain Power' and 'Nutri Brain'. The fish oil and Omega 3 industry has tapped into our deepest fears in this ultra competitive world and fish oil tablets are currently selling by the bucket load as parents foist the things on their poor kids, hoping for improved exam results.

So what of the evidence though? What have proper, academically rigorous, double-blind medical trials involving placebo groups shown about all this stuff? Fish oil for increased IQ? No evidence. Antioxidant pills for protection against cancer? No evidence. Surely vitamin C to prevent colds? No evidence…at all.

We are seduced by the power of the pill however and prefer to avoid inconvenient truths regarding complex social problems and the real causes of poor health. We don't want to hear about the social inequalities, the employment uncertainties, the disintegrating communities and environments, the junk diets and pollution that all affect public health. Instead, the charms of curative quackery in capsule form dovetail nicely with the now naturalized, right-wing notion of individuality that has won the ideological battle over the last 30 years. "It's their fault if they're not eating their fish oil capsules and thus their children are failing at school."

Alas, Indonesia, with its traditional culture of placebo medicines and credulous underclass, doesn’t really stand much of a chance of resisting these fads that have now taken the West by storm. I however cocked a snook at the fair maidens and their cornucopia of pills and headed to the cash register with only a box of Pleasuremax™ in my trembling hand. I then scuttled off to enjoy the oldest cure of them all, namely putting my forebrain to sleep with ethyl-alcohol. Stay in the pink everyone there will be more ratty banter next week.