Who says that the media hates Big Pharma?
Last month, the formerly hard-hitting news magazine 60 Minutes turned into a
CBS star Katie Couric opened the April 25 show
with a promo for stimulants and all the elements of a slick infomercial. She
appeared sitting on a stool in front of a large display illustrating pills with
graduation caps. The sign behind her read: “BOOSTING BRAIN POWER”. Couric,
using her “I’m the first female anchorwoman”, tone, gave the pitch, “If there
were a drug that would make you smarter, would you take it?”
Well who would say No to that? Especially
if America’s most trusted journalist asks the question.
Couric assumed that we would and proceeds
with product offers for Adderall and Ritalin. As Couric informed us, these
stimulants are for a variety of mental illnesses but are most commonly used for
Attention Deficit Disorder. Couric then delivered the hook. Students without
ADD are using these drugs “to boost their brain power and help them make the
Next came the testimonials. Couric the stern
anchorwoman reverted to Morning Show Katie, gently prodding a focus group of
eight students to share their secrets. The students were all-American college
sterotypes, young white men and women, the squeaky-clean leaders of tomorrow.
Although only Lauren confessed to using Adderall without a prescription (ie, illegally),
all of them seem very familiar with the medication. They all assured Katie that
popping Adderall while cramming was as common as drinking bad coffee.
Lauren’s initial description of her
experience with Adderall was rather mundane. The drug helped her stay awake,
increased her motivation and focus.
Smiling and commenting that she understood
that Adderall makes boring work more interesting, Couric encouraged Lauren to expand
upon her experience.
Lauren eagerly responded, “If I’m not on
Adderall, I’ll read something and I’m not really interested at all, you’re just
trying to keep yourself focused, but then, you take an Adderall and you all of
the sudden are just totally consumed in what you’re doing”
Morning Show Katie eventually asked the
students a couple of serious softball questions towards the end of the segment.
Addiction, anyone? This was quickly dismissed. Not a problem. Not at all.
Only one student believed using stimulants
was wrong, mainly bcause it would be unfair to others. The other students
recognized that it was a “big moral question”. Using the reasoning of a
six-year-old, the student reflected on his feelings and passively gave his
approval, “Most people are OK with it.”
It’s hard to say which was worse, the
unquestioning embrace of drug abuse to get ahead or the coarse herd mentality justifying
As disturbing as the students were, some of
the teachers were worse. Couric interviewed a Harvard economics professor, Dr
Brandon Adams, who regularly uses Adderall and other stimulants to get his work
done. Adams repeated the “All the Cool Kids Are Doing It” argument as he
reported that many lawyers and academics “like this stuff”.
Another professor, Martha Farah, of the
University of Pennsylvania, confessed that she was disturbed by the use of
amphetamines in college. But she seemed to accept the trade-off with an
inevitable future of people “enhancing” their brains. Revealing a childlike
utopian faith in technology, Farah gleefully prophesied that some day pill-popping
would lead to a cure for cancer.
The only one not singing from the hymnal of
the Brave New World was Dr Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute
on Drug Abuse (NIDA). She chided Farah and her colleagues for being
irresponsible and warned Couric about the dangers of Adderall, especially
Volkow should have saved her criticisms for
CBS. The show was a promotion of drug abuse and the latest futuristic fad,
neuroenhancement . I’ve seen more straight talk and balance in Viagra
Couric’s constant reference to these
stimulants as making you smarter or boosting brain power was a reckless
distortion of the effects of these drugs which is mainly to reduce sedation and
increase alertness. Even worse were unsubstantiated claims by Couric or the
people she interviewed that stimulants are frequently used by truck drivers,
doctors and other professionals.
The broadcast was also weighted in favor of
stimulant abuse in a more subtle but powerful way. There were attractive images
of successful young men and women touting the benefits of Adderall. There were
no faces of Adderall addiction.
Adderall has become one of the most abused
prescription drugs. A study in the journal Pediatrics last year showed that
calls to poison control centers related to the illicit use of Adderall by
teenagers had increased fivefold between 1998 and 2005.
As well as Dr Volkow’s warnings, Couric should
have interviewed an addict. It wouldn’t have been difficult. It took me 10
seconds to find a website for men and women dealing with Adderall addiction. Here’s
young woman’s account of her experience:
day before I had a test, I popped a pill. The day before a paper was due, I
popped a pill. And the day before a quiz, I popped a pill. For every test,
paper and reading assignment, I popped a pill…
after weeks of taking these pills, I noticed a big difference in my attitude
and appearance. I’ve always been a nail-biter, but taking Adderall caused me to
reduce my nails to practically nothing. My fingers were bloody and ached
constantly. I lost weight, but only because I didn’t eat. And even when I
wasn’t high on the pill, food made me nauseated. I would take one bite and feel
even started feeling less happy and got used to my serious attitude. Jokes
weren’t as funny and I don’t think I felt myself smile much. Not only was my
happiness gone, but I would also lie awake for hours in bed staring at the
ceiling and trying to get my mind to stop racing…
eventually tired of all this and stopped taking Adderall. Like magic, all the
sulkiness, restlessness and grouchiness went away. I started to feel like
The stories of other addicts on numerous websites
report distressing experiences of Adderall addiction. Showing a gaunt, paranoid
and toothless addict would be a powerful counter to the cheerful cherubs on 60
The team at 60 Minutes seemed much more
thrilled by trendy ideas of brilliance in a bottle than the real story about a
task-driven youth culture looking for quick success with minimal effort.
Broadcast journalists pride themselves on delivering
shock and controversy to our living rooms. The spectacle of the leaders of
tomorrow pumping themselves with speed was shocking. The enthusiastic
professors were even more shocking. But the biggest shock was watching TV’s
most respected news magazine providing a better promotion for stimulants than
any pharmaceutical company would ever dare. 6o Minutes abandoned professional
objectivity and responsibility for the thrill of tomorrow.
Bowers MD is a Texas psychiatrist.