Drug Companies Have Been So Good at Marketing ADHD Meds, Who Wouldn’t Want a Prescription?

What Women Really Think
Dec. 16 2013 1:52 PM

Who Wouldn't Want an Adderall Prescription? 

Adderall
An advertisement for Adderall

Shire

Over the weekend, the New York Times published a thorough investigation of the explosion of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnoses, which has been hugely profitable for pharmaceutical companies that sell drugs, like Adderall and Concerta, to treat it. Under the headline, "The Selling of Attention Deficit Disorder," reporter Alan Schwarz writes that 15 percent of high school kids now have a diagnosis, and the number of children on medication to treat it has grown to 3.5 million, up from only 600,000 in 1990. “The disorder is now the second most frequent long-term diagnosis made in children, narrowly trailing asthma, according to a New York Times analysis of C.D.C. data,” Schwarz writes.

The big story is that experts like Dr. Keith Connors, who helped establish ADHD as a diagnosis in the first place, have now started to raise the alarm about overdiagnosis.

“The numbers make it look like an epidemic. Well, it’s not. It’s preposterous,” Dr. Conners, a psychologist and professor emeritus at Duke University, said in a subsequent interview. “This is a concoction to justify the giving out of medication at unprecedented and unjustifiable levels.”
Advertisement

Schwarz lays the blame for the incredible uptick firmly on drug companies for aggressively marketing to parents with ads that portray prescription stimulants as a miracle drug that will turn a tantrum-throwing C student into an angel who makes the honor roll every time. One company, Shire, produces a comic book that features superheroes telling kids, “Medicines may make it easier to pay attention and control your behavior!”

The Food and Drug Administration has taken steps to rein in some of the more obnoxiously overpromising ads, but it may be too late. The tendency to run to the pediatrician and get a prescription for Adderall the second a kid starts to act out has become firmly ingrained in the culture, in no small part because there's no real incentive not to go that route. As Will Oremus explained in Slate back in March, even if you don't have ADHD, Adderall still improves your concentration and can make it easier to plow through monotonous tasks like writing essays or reading dry textbooks. When faced with this kind of work, we all have a tendency to become ADHD-like, easily distracted and eager to procrastinate. Indeed, drug companies know this, which is why their "quizzes" to determine if you might have ADHD read like they could apply to anyone who has the misfortune of being born human. ("When a task is challenging, you procrastinate." Uh, yes.)

Schwarz’s piece shows how the ADHD business has been “good” for everyone. For students, access to Adderall can make their work easier. Parents, of course, love seeing those grades improve and homework get done with fewer complaints. Teachers love the drug so much that they're often the first people to suggest it. There are benefits for doctors and even for medical journals.

Of course, as Schwarz notes, ADHD drugs do have side effects that can be dangerous. And diagnosing someone with an illness they don’t really have can alter their self-perception in damaging ways. One man who was diagnosed as a high school freshman told Schwarz: “They were telling me, ‘Honey, there’s something wrong with your brain and this little pill’s going to fix everything.’ … It changed my whole self-image, and it took me years to get out from under that.”

I’m glad to see that Schwarz’s piece is at the top of the New York Times’ most emailed list, but still it’s hard to see turning back the tide. The drugs have become so appealing that adults are getting in on the action now, too. They even get their own ads, featuring sexiest man alive and ADHD sufferer Adam Levine telling us to “own” the disease. The rate of adult diagnoses of ADHD has been growing as rapidly as the rate of child diagnoses. It seems that it’s hard to convince people that Adderall overuse is a problem when, frankly, it feels more like a solution. 

Amanda Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based writer and DoubleX contributor. She also writes regularly for the Daily Beast, AlterNet, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 21 2014 12:43 PM Watch Rachel Dratch and Tina Fey Do a Second City Sketch in 1997
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.