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What’s In Our Medicine Cabinets?

Recently published statistics show that the top-grossing medication in the U.S. for 2013 was the antipsychotic Abilify (aripiprazole) with over $6 billion in sales, narrowly beating out the previous few years’ winner, Nexium.

The past decade’s dominating pharmaceuticals have been Lipitor (atorvastatin) for high cholesterol and Nexium (esomeprazole) for acid reflux. Nexium was preceded at the top by Prilosec (omeprazole), and before that we had Pepcid (famotidine) and Zantac (ranitidine) somewhere near the top of the sales data.

A country’s medicine cabinets tell us something about its culture and its predominant issues.

From the late 1960’s to the early 1980’s the tranquilizer Valium (diazepam) was the top grossing drug. The 1965 US sales volume of tranquilizers was somewhere around 166 million prescriptions or 14% of all prescriptions filled in this country. Both “uppers” and “downers” were subjects of the 1966 best seller “Valley of the Dolls”. Valium rose to the top after the previous few years’ blockbuster tranquilizer Miltown (meprobamate) proved to have significant toxicity risks.

So, this country has gone from treating nervousness and suppressed emotions to heartburn and high cholesterol, the latter two sometimes self-inflicted through dietary indiscretion, and now back to psychiatric conditions like schizophrenia. True, there are other, “softer” indications for Abilify – bipolar disorder, treatment resistant depression and for chemical restraining of aggressive individuals, even children.

One cannot help but stop and reflect on this pharmaceutical sales phenomenon.

The postwar years, although portrayed in media as a time of health care advances, optimism and prosperity, were years of great anxiety. My own observation is that many of my patients and acquaintances who were children during World War II lack the emotional imperturbability of those whose childhood fell in the 1930’s, born in the early to mid 1920’s.

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