Branding Diseases to Sell Cures

Pharmaceutical companies have mastered the art of "branding" diseases to sell more drugs, according to Carl Elliott, M.D., Ph.D., author of White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine. "Branding" means shaping public perception of a disease to make treatment more appealing to potential patients. Once people are convinced they have a new condition, they will seek treatment on their own, and new drugs will sell themselves. Disease-branding works if conditions can be portrayed as shameful, or if they are stigmatized. For example, to sell the drug Detrol, Pharmacia re-branded urinary incontinence as "overactive bladder," and used advertising to convince people that they no longer actually have to lose bladder control to have a condition -- they just have to need to go to the bathroom a lot. Neil Wolf, Vice President of Pharmacia, explained how re-branding worked in a 2002 presentation called "Positioning Detrol: Creating a Disease." By making people think they have a new condition called "overactive bladder," the company created a market of 21 million potential patients. Other conditions re-packaged through branding include "social anxiety disorder" (which used to be called "shyness") and "gastro-esphageal reflux disease" (formerly called "heartburn").