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Pill pushers: ADHD industry

The number of children taking medications to treat supposed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders jumped from 600,000 in 1990 to 3.5 million today.

Sales proceeds of those prescription drugs multiplied five times between 2002 and 2012, from $1.7 to nearly $9 billion.

"The Selling of Attention Deficit Disorder," a New York Times report, documents the startling rise in prescribing drugs to control problems from a psychological disorder that may be routinely exaggerated.

Few physicians and medical researchers dispute that ADHD is a real disability that can hurt a child's or adult's success in school, at work or in their personal lives. The disability was previously estimated to affect about 5 percent of children. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that ADHD is currently diagnosed in 15 percent of all high school students.

"Behind that growth has been drug company marketing that has stretched the image of classic ADHD to include relatively normal behavior like carelessness and impatience, and has often overstated the pills' benefits," according to the Times. Pharmaceutical companies also work to expand ADHD diagnoses to sell more prescriptions for adults.

The article by Alan Schwarz should be a major warning to patients, parents and physicians prescribing pharmaceuticals. Medical diagnoses should be based on credible scientific research, not on corporate advertising and profits.

Some teachers and school administrators have promoted the use of ADHD drugs, the Times points out, because it helps subdue and control rambunctious and underachieving students. Pharmaceutical companies pay physicians and research scientists to promote their products to patients and in published research studies.

Today, some medical journals including the New England Journal of Medicine, require authors of all articles to reveal any connections to companies selling the products they write about.

Since 2000, the FDA has cited companies making every major ADHD drug -- including Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta, Focalin, Vyvanse, Intuniv and Strattera -- for funding false and misleading advertising.

Some people taking ADHD drugs become unable to sleep for days, lose their appetites or hallucinate. But in their advertising and marketing, drug companies routinely downplay "possible side effects like insomnia, irritability and psychotic episodes," the national newspaper said.

After receiving major financial support from drug manufacturers, the American Psychiatric Association began loosening its criteria to identify ADHD, resulting in increased sales for pharmaceuticals.

Dr. Keith Conners, a Duke University psychologist, criticizes much of the research promoting the increased use of ADHD drugs.

"This is a concoction to justify the giving out of medication at unprecedented and unjustifiable levels," he said.

At conferences, pharmaceutical company speakers cite Dr. Joseph Biederman, a child psychiatrist at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital, to be in support of their products. In 2008, a U.S. Senate investigation found that Biederman received major financing from drug companies to conduct dozens of studies claiming to document psychiatric problems.

Those companies paid Biederman $1.6 million in speaking and consulting fees in recent years. Conners called Biederman "unequivocally the most published psychopharmacology maven for ADHD."

Pharmaceutical companies regularly invite physicians to conferences to convince them to prescribe their products. During the first nine months of 2013, for example, Shire spent $1 million setting up conferences designed to "educate" physicians about its products.Research scientists, physicians, psychiatrists, educators and media outlets have a growing responsibility to protect the public -- especially children in school -- from approving drug prescriptions driven by corporate greed.


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