Volume 94, Issue 67

Tuesday, January 23, 2001


Is our society using too many drugs?

Is our society using too many drugs?

By Tola Afolabi and Leena Kamat
Gazette Staff

Some of the biggest success stories are about the discovery of drugs which miraculously seem to cure illnesses or suppress symptoms.

As a result, prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs are being sold in record numbers and pharmaceutical companies represent one of the largest industries in the world. But is the population really healthier? And are people taking too many drugs?

"There's a tendency for people to pop pills," said Fraser Smith, associate medical director of the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine. "There's a tendency to over medicate and treat things that may have gone away on their own."

Smith explained society has resorted to treating many aches and pains with medicine. A sore elbow from playing tennis is quickly remedied with an over-the-counter painkiller. Overuse even occurs with prescription drugs.

"Some drugs are over prescribed," Smith said. "Antibiotics are a common group." While Smith acknowledged antibiotics are appropriate in some situations, he cautioned against the effects of other drugs. "A lot of prescription drugs can have side effects, even the combination of certain drugs [can be harmful]."

However, Angelika Hann, professor of neurology at Western, said over-the-counter drugs are more commonly misused, while prescription drugs are relatively safe.

As for the "magic bullet effect," – taking the same general pain killer for both a headache and sore knee – Hann said there was little cause for concern. "If you use it for pain, it will do its job. It doesn't matter whether pain is in the head or in the leg."

Brianna Mersey/Gazette

But what about past negative experiences with "miracle" drugs, which have been found to have drastic side effects? With the increased popularity of a drug, comes increased usage and increased side effects Hann said.

Also, competitors often generate bad press for the makers of a successful drug such as Prozac, said Bhadresh Surti, assistant professor of psychiatry at Western. "The controversy is created by people for political reasons. The company is jealous that Prozac is making millions and millions of dollars, and they try to compete. They find bad publicity."

But caution must be taken with other controversial drugs, such as Viagra, Surtri explained. The benefits of Viagra for patients suffering erectile dysfunction were discovered accidentally when testing medication for heart disease patients. Viagra is not intended for people with heart conditions as some adverse reactions can occur. "We need to give education," Surtri said.

But Sophie McCann, manager of corporate affairs at Pfizer Canada, the manufacturer of Viagra, said the most common side effects of the drug include headaches and gastrointestinal burning. She did admit there is always potential for the abuse of prescription drugs, whether Viagra or pain killers.

"We know some people are using Viagra for wrong reasons. But usually, once the person has tried it for a few times, they stop," she said, explaining some people have the misconception that using Viagra will result in a bigger or longer erection.

Lack of education was also a major reason for the tragic effects of thalidomide, a sleeping pill sold in North America in the 1960s. In pregnant women, the drug blocked development of the unborn baby's arms and legs.

It was banned first in the US, said Sam Sussman, director of psychiatric social services at London Psychiatric Hospital. "[Western Europe and Canada] still were using it much longer."

With this and other "mistakes" in mind, how much does the medical community really know about the human body and the drugs prescribed to help it? "We know a lot, and lots of the drugs are specifically directed," Hann said.

Sussman said the amount of knowledge is really relative, as new discoveries have resulted in a life span of 74 years for males and 82 years for females. "People have never lived this long. That's largely due to medical inventions which weren't available in the 1800s – we have to be doing something right."

However, research continues and even seemingly innovative and flawless treatments may come under scrutiny. "Maybe in 300 years from now we'll say this was an embryonic treatment," Sussman said, explaining researchers continue discovering new uses for Aspirin.

Consumers are starting to consider herbs and other natural products, said Cindy Garrick, a pharmacist at the Prescription Centre Pharmacy at the London Health Sciences Centre, University Campus. While she could not say how accepted this trend would be, she said there is a definite growth in the sale of natural medicines.

Gerry Harrington, director of public and professional affairs of the Non prescription Drug Manufacturers Association of Canada, agreed the use of herbs and natural medicines has been increasing in the past decade. In 1990, less than 1 in 10 people were using some form of natural medicine. By 1998, that number had risen to one in three people. "The growth is unbelievable."

Meanwhile, the government is heavily involved in making sure only appropriate drugs are accepted into the Canadian market, Harrington said. The federal government looks after product approval and regulations. At the provincial level, they determine where drugs can be sold and their classification. Each classification is determined by the potential danger and side effects of the drugs.

Jeff Pender, media relations officer for Health Canada, said the government only examines scientific information from a drug's manufacturer before introducing it to market. "We don't look at the practice of medicine. The drug that's approved is effective at doing what it claims. It may not be the best way to treat the condition," he said, adding whether or not to use it is ultimately the consumer's decision.

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