In Sheila Matthews' view, it was a heartening event for the back-to-school season: the signing of a law in Connecticut that she and others hope will relieve the growing pressure on parents to put their kids on drugs to control attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The New Canaan homemaker helped gather support for the bill and was understandably proud to be in the Governor's office last week for the ceremony. But she and her fellow lobbyists for the legislation, most of them parents, also got a surprise kick in the teeth.
Picking up the September issues of a number of women's and parenting magazines, they saw the very first ads promoting these same medications. Considered Schedule II controlled substances by the Drug Enforcement Administration, they are among the most addictive and abused drugs that are still legal. Says Patricia Weathers, a Millbrook, N.Y., mother pushing for a law like Connecticut's: "It seems like every time we take a step forward, they come back and hit us harder."
Connecticut's law is the first to bar school officials from recommending psychotropic drugs for kids on the theory that such matters should be left to families and their doctors. The law comes on the heels of legislation enacted by Minnesota earlier this year preventing schools from forcing parents to medicate ADHD children. Utah and New Jersey have similar bills pending, and lawmakers in many other states have shown interest in such action.
But the legislative trend is at odds with a new--and unprecedented--marketing push by the makers of ADHD drugs. Until now, drugmakers have heeded a 30-year-old international treaty meant to discourage consumer advertising of psychotropic substances. No more. In one ad, drugmaker Celltech shows a smiling boy and his mom with the message: "One dose covers his ADHD for the whole school day," plus the drug's name, Metadate CD. The ad is running in a dozen magazines, including Ladies' Home Journal, which has two more ADHD drug ads in the same issue--from Shire Pharmaceuticals (maker of Adderall) and McNeil Consumer HealthCare (Concerta). These ads don't name any medications, but they do give toll-free numbers for more information. McNeil also has a similar ad on cable TV.
In light of what appears to be an epidemic of ADHD-some 3 million U.S. youngsters are believed to be afflicted with it and related behavior problems--pharmaceutical companies are locked in a fierce battle for what will soon be a $1 billion-a-year market for drugs treating the problem. New prescriptions for ADHD treatments have gone up more than 38% over the past five years, with 20 million prescriptions written in the past year. No longer do Ritalin and its generic knockoffs rule. Now there are more than half a dozen treatments, some of which last a whole school day, sparing kids the stigma of lining up at the nurse's office.
Last year pharmaceutical manufacturers spent $2.5 billion marketing drugs of all kinds to consumers. A spokeswoman for the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers Association says such ads "empower" patients by informing them of treatment options. But, as doctors will tell you, they are a double-edged sword because they drive up demand for drugs. And that's particularly dicey in the case of drugs like those used for ADHD, which the DEA puts in the same category with morphine, cocaine, Demerol and Oxycontin.