There is a new documentary causing quite a lot of buzz today. It is called Orgasm, Inc. and it looks at the strange but inevitable collision of the pharmaceutical industry with women’s sexuality. Liz Canner uses this film to display the sad reality that pharmaceutical companies play a crucial role in shaping the diseases they seek to treat. To make money they need to treat diseases and they are certainly not above fabricating or exaggerating them in order to come to the rescue with some amazing new cure. Such is the case with Female Sexual Dysfunction, the particular focus of the documentary. At least that is what Liz Canner argues in Orgasm Inc. This is not a case of companies reacting to genuine problems and creating cures, but a case of companies generating diseases and then magnanimously stepping in with a cure.
A Cure that Needs a Disease
If Canner is right, it tells us two things: there are some diseases that need a cure and some cures that need a disease. When we think of the pharmaceutical industry, we like to think that they have before them a list of the diseases that afflict us and that they are responsibly seeking to generate cures for them. That’s the rose-colored glasses view. The reality is that these companies answer to the shareholder, they answer to the bottom line. And to keep that bottom line healthy they need to be proactive. And so, like any other industry, they fabricate the need as they fabricate the product. We know this happens in other areas—fashion and personal care and electronics—so why not in pharmaceuticals?
Here’s the rub: if a cure is going to sell, it needs to have insurance companies pay for it; insurance companies will only pay for it if it works against a specific medical condition. But definitions can be changed, and eventually this is what tends to happen: the drug companies work with medical experts to define the disease in such a specific way or in such a vague way that the insurance companies will need to provide the medications for it.