Big Pharma Peddles Racism

At least that is the message I take away a story I heard on NPR. I was listening to The Marketplace when I heard this story about a book by Ethan Watters. Watters is being interviewed by Kai Ryssdal and has this to say:

Ryssdal: This is kind of a bald thing to say, but if you try to remain value neutral about this, it makes economic sense for these drugs companies, some of which are American, some of which are British, some of which are European, makes sense for them to try to explore other markets, right?

WATTERS: Oh absolutely. And you know the book documents how these executives of these companies talk about the evolution of other cultures. So they talk about China being 10 years behind Japan, and Japan being five years behind America, and they become very good at going from culture to culture, changing notions of sadness, for instance, into ideas of depression. And they assume that we’re at the head of the evolutionary tree and that other cultures need to become more like us. [bold mine - afarensis]

I find this absolutely appalling. For several reasons. As Watters points out when he answers the next question, cultural has a huge impact on mental illness and to treat people in other societies for mental illness based on our own conception of what it means to be mentally ill consigns these people to suffering years of incorrect treatment and then how are they treated when they don’t respond acceptably to the treatment? Second, what kind of racist scum are running the pharmaceutical industry anyway. These kinds of notions of cultural superiority/inferiority are long since defunct in anthropological thought. Third, apparently the pharmaceutical industry has professional help in their malfeasance:

WATTERS: Certainly that is one of the key forces. In the book I tell the story of how GlaxoSmithKline took Paxil to Japan at the beginning of the century. They began to gather this knowledge about how to change Japan’s notions of depressions. They even enlisted some of these cross-cultural psychiatrists who understand how culture shapes mental illness. They enlisted them in the process. And they taught them to change that idea of states of melancholy can be almost transcendent states of being into this idea that states of melancholy were a mental illness. And bam, they had a tremendous market for their drug. And they’re now selling a billion dollars worth of Paxil a year.

What happened to professional ethics I would like to know.

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3 Responses

  1. Pedals –> peddles

  2. Ooops! I’ll fix it…

  3. “These kinds of notions of cultural superiority/inferiority are long since defunct in anthropological thought.”

    As far as I can tell, they’re still pretty common in people who aren’t anthropologists, though. I find it hard to believe that anyone over, say, 30 who is not some sort of social scientist by training would believe that foreign cultures weren’t automatically worse than their own. Based on my own experience, which may or may not be representative, your average New Hampshirite, who is more educated than your average American, has no problem dividing the world into “primitive” and “advanced” cultures, especially if the “primitive” people they refer to aren’t culturally European. At least skin tone doesn’t seem to matter as much to us anymore. I guess we’ve advanced to a more civilized form of discrimination. -rolls eyes-

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