Can sickness be sold?

Sure, you wouldn’t “sell sickness” in the same way that you would a flat screen TV or an iPhone, but there are individuals who make a living off of this seemingly unusual practice. Selling sickness, also known as disease mongering, is a phenomenon that you most likely encounter every day, without even knowing it.

Consider baldness, for instance. Everyone loses hair as they age. Sure, it’s annoying and not aesthetically pleasing to many, but it’s normal, right?


At least according to pharmaceutical companies like Merck, that is.

These companies dramatize common health conditions in order to advertise their products. In order to expand their consumer base and increase profits, they frame mild health problems as serious issues that are a cause for concern.

For instance, when Propecia (finasteride), Merck’s oral tablet created to combat hair loss, was first approved in Australia, well-known Australian newspapers featured articles describing the negative emotional side-effects of hair loss. The Australian, for instance, featured a recent “study” concluding that a third of all men had some degree of hair loss. Moreover, the article included comments by experts who were concerned with the hair loss problem, as well as news that an International Hair Study Institute had been created. The article discussed how hair loss could lead to panic and emotional difficulties, in addition to impacting job prospects and mental wellness. What the article failed to include, however, was the fact that both the study and the institute were funded by Merck. Even though the pharmaceutical giant is barred from directly advertising finasteride to Australian consumers, it continues to frame hair loss as a medical issue. The company gets around this law by creating waves of advertisements that push balding men to “See Your Doctor.” By allying itself with credible individuals and media sources, Merck turned the natural process of hair loss into a feared disease.

Other pharmaceutical companies are also guilty of disease mongering, such as GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and its drug, Lotronex, used to treat irritable bowel syndrome. GSK has partnered with medical education company In Vivo Communications to create a medical education program that depicts irritable bowel syndrome as a serious disease. These medical education plans are nothing more than marketing strategies in disguise, designed to ignite fear and hysteria in potential consumers, so that they will see their condition as more severe than it actually is. These individuals will then purchase the company’s product in order to rid themselves of their apparently serious illness.

Why do pharmaceutical companies do this? After all, aren’t they supposed to alleviate individuals’ medical issues, instead of exacerbating them?

The answer is simple: money. Profits. That’s what it all boils down to in the end. Pharmaceutical companies strive to maximize their markets and profits, and therefore, they strategically market their products so as to make potential consumers believe that their conditions are more severe than they actually are. Then, these individuals will purchase the company’s products, even though they do not necessarily need them. These unassuming consumers waste money on medicines that they do not actually need, and, in some cases, they unfortunately become ill due to the side-effects of these drugs. The practice of disease mongering is a perfect example of how many people have misunderstandings about medicine and science, and therefore can be quite easily deceived by those who take advantage of this lack of knowledge.  

This issue is extremely important, because hundreds of unassuming individuals fall victim to disease mongering every day. They see an advertisement that describes symptoms that they have (for instance, hair loss), and become fearful of the consequences of their ailment. Thinking that their illness is more severe than it actually is, they purchase a product that they do not necessarily need. In some cases, they develop side-effects to the medication that are even more severe than the disease that they had. As a result, they spend even more money and take even more medications to combat these side-effects, and the cycle continues, as these medications can also have side-effects.

How can we fix this issue that is so deeply rooted in the pharmaceutical industry? There are a few solutions that could be implemented. For instance, studies funded by corporations (such as the study funded by Merck that was discussed earlier in this article) should be replaced by independent information. This will remove any bias in the information presented, and will allow readers to form their own conclusions, without being steered in a certain direction.  In addition, consumers should become aware of disease mongering and its implications. This awareness can be achieved by creating easily accessible sources of trustworthy medical knowledge (independent of a company), as well as by implementing awareness campaigns to bring light to this issue.  If consumers are aware of how corporations sell disease, they will become more skeptical of advertisements and information presented to them, and will in turn make more informed decisions when it comes to purchasing medications.

The next time an advertisement on TV or in the newspaper throws a jumble of statistics and quotes by “experts” at you, think twice. What are they really saying? Chances are, you will be surprised by the difference between what you hear and what is actually being said.


Moynihan, Ray, et al. “Selling Sickness: the Pharmaceutical Industry and Disease Mongering.” BMJ : British Medical Journal, BMJ Group, 13 Apr. 2002,

Posted by Kopal Bansal

Kopal is a freshman at the Johns Hopkins University, pursuing a major in molecular and cellular biology, as well as a minor in entrepreneurship and management. As a member of HMR’s Domestic Health Team, she writes articles that focus on healthcare in the United States. When she is not busy studying, Kopal enjoys to play piano, practice tennis, and run. She is particularly interested in understanding health inequities and working to combat them through organizations such as MEDLIFE. In addition, she is the founder of Smiles for a Child, a non-profit organization that creates magazines for pediatric patients. She aspires to become a physician, and provide more effective treatments to a wider range of individuals.

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