Dr. Asa Don Brown, Ph.D., C.C.C., D.N.C.C.M., F.A.A.E.T.S.

spoon with pills on it

In recent years, the manufactures of a variety of pharmaceuticals have been intentionally marketing to children. The pharmaceutical companies are not alone in this marketing strategy to reach children, but they have devised a way to reach them through a strategy that employs some ethically questionable tactics. A number of the pharmaceutical companies have not only marketed through traditional platforms, but have now become players in technological applications. According to a recent article in Business Insider, “Medical companies are bankrolling classroom lesson plans and comic books, hosting events with costumed characters, and promoting smartphone apps.” What is wrong with pharmaceutical companies creating awareness in the classroom? “Companies frame their efforts as a service to kids. But they also bring benefits to the company: Children might ask their parents for a certain medicine just as they would a cereal brand. And kids are valuable customers. The percentage of American children and teens taking prescription drugs has stayed fairly steady over the past two decades, but insurance companies are forking over more money for their pills.”

Unfortunately, the pharmaceutical companies have recognized that children are a guaranteed consumer. If you convert them when they are young; they will remain loyal users and supporters of your company. Name brand and recognition of a product guarantees consumer loyalty, just ask the pharmaceutical company BandAid.

How does consumer loyalty to pharmaceuticals relate to addictions? Pharmaceuticals would have you believe that they are the be-all and the end-all. Regrettably, pharmaceuticals are not always the answer nor will they cure all. The pharmaceutical companies would have you believe that they are capable of preventing or alleviating a majority of psychological and physical health related conditions, but what we have learned is that such conditions are more complex and they take a layered approach to treatment.

Please understand that I do not intend on bashing pharmaceuticals, nor is it my objective to promote a particular psychological slant, but rather to bring awareness to the probability of a child developing an unintentional desire or addiction for pharmaceuticals or other substances. Moreover, we have witnessed an increase in a variety of pharmaceutical medications and their illegal counterparts. According to Dr. Donald W. Light of Princeton University, “few people realize that prescription drugs have become a leading cause of death, disease, and disability. Adverse reactions to widely used drugs, such as psychotropics and birth control pills, as well as biologicals, result in FDA warnings against adverse reactions.” The issues of addiction and an increased tolerance are a footnote in the advertisements.

The pharmaceutical industry has been the unintentional catalyst for many addicts. It begins innocently: a patient sees his or her doctor for a major chronic issue, or they have a major surgical procedure. The patient is prescribed a narcotic for pain management, but in time, the narcotic is no longer enough or the prescription expires. The patient is then left with a craving for the relief that the narcotic provided. There have been countless examples in the media of prescription abuse and addiction. The list is equally as long as those who have lost their precious lives. The treatment should not end with the expiration of the pharmaceutical. Moreover, it may be advisable to help patients being weaned off of narcotics by working with a mental health professional.

The marketing gurus of pharmaceutical companies are psychologically savvy. They intentionally market to children through a number of avenues. They target children by marketing to the child’s parents or caregivers, pediatricians, dentists, health specialists, teachers, mental health professionals, etc. While there are an infinite number of examples, the following are blatant acts of marketing to young children:

Spriva (tiotropium bromide) asthma treatment features a gentle bear hugging a man throughout his day. It includes a clip of the man playing miniature golf where you see a supersized honeycomb.

Abilify (aripiprazole) anti-depressant treatment has targeted children through a variety of cartoon like characters including the letter “A.” The “A” character resembles an afternoon special or a Sesame Street Character.

How is the intentional marketing of pharmaceutical products any different than the previously banned tobacco or alcohol ads that targeted children? Do you remember the Joe Camel ad for Camel cigarettes, a product of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company? “Do adults really need cartoons to understand what a drug can do? Or is there a more sinister plot afoot?”

The pharmaceutical companies appear to be mimicking the past marketing strategies of big tobacco and the liquor industries. For many generations, youth and children of all ages were indirectly and directly marketed to. The Federal Trade Commission was “…successful in appealing to many children and adolescents under 18, induced many young people to begin smoking or to continue smoking cigarettes and as a result caused significant injury to their health and safety… the percentage of kids who smoked Camels became larger than the percentage of adults who smoked Camels.”

Advertisements are not isolated to pharmaceutical companies, but have spread throughout a variety of school related products. According to an article in the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Ads are now appearing on school buses, in gymnasiums, on book covers, and even in bathroom stalls. More than 200 school districts nationwide have signed exclusive contracts with soft drink companies. These agreements specify the number and placement of soda-vending machines, which is ironic given that schools risk losing federal subsidies for their free breakfast and lunch programs if they serve soda in their cafeterias. In addition, there are more than 4500 Pizza Hut chains and 3000 Taco Bell chains in school cafeterias around the country.”

Pharmaceutical companies are big business and like any big business they have no place in academia. There are reports that pharmaceutical companies are not only directly and indirectly marketing to children, but are now directly influencing academia. In fact, while there are a number of reasons and rationales behind the pharmaceutical developed worksheets, instructional manuals, and coloring books; the truth is, these large corporations are directly advertising to our children by placing logos and advertisements on the materials. Why does this matter? “By first grade, most American children have learned 200 logos, and research shows they are much more likely to stick with those brands throughout their lifetime. That’s why companies are eager to expose their logos to as many youngsters as possible, stamping corporate logos all over children’s toys and hanging their banners at children’s events like the circus or ice-skating programs.”

While I am hopeful that the intentions of the pharmaceutical companies is altruistic in respect to academia; I am deeply concerned by their logos being plastered all over my children’s materials.

Are we conditioning our children to be addicts? Should medication have an attractive smell, odor or taste? What is the probability of a child becoming more enticed by medications when they are attractive?

“Making children’s medicines tasty makes the experience of being sick less stressful for kids, and helps doctors and parents get kids to take them peacefully. But there is also the danger, if they are too tasty, that kids will consume them in secret, and overdose.” When medications provide a state of euphoria, it creates a relationship between medication and happiness. The realization that the medications are drugs is lost in the taste.

Are we allowing the alteration of medications to create a subtle appeal to the unconscious and conscious minds of our children? The alteration of medications and vitamins create a longstanding appeal for children. While pharmaceuticals have their place, we must refrain from allowing them to become an intricate part of our children’s lives.

Dr. Asa Don Brown, Ph.D., C.C.C., D.N.C.C.M., F.A.A.E.T.S. Website:
References Provided Upon Request