By: Tirthna Badhiwala
Condition branding. It’s the difference between a making a new drug to fix a real disorder and simply making up a condition in order to sell a drug that treats it.
The social taboo against discussing female sexuality is slowly dissolving, but whether a pharmaceutical company could or should profit from this takes such discussions to a new level.
Last month, the FDA approved Addyi (generically flibanserin), the first drug made to increase a woman’s libido, which was created by Sprout Pharmaceuticals in Raleigh, NC.
The CEO of Sprout, Cindy Whitehead, points out that “men have a number of treatment options for sexual dysfunction… We haven’t yet gotten to one for women’s most common dysfunction.” The ‘dysfunction’ to which she refers is called Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder by pharmaceutical companies. She claims that the pill was designed with the goal of creating a drug for women that would serve as the equivalent for the many treatment options available to men for sexual dysfunction.
To most, this would only seem fair--but the controversy comes from how the drug works. Rather than affecting the amount of blood flow to sexual organs, as male erectile dysfunction drugs do, Addyi targets the brain. Specifically, it affects the balance between two key excitatory neurotransmitters, dopamine and norepinephrine, as well as decreasing an inhibitory chemical, serotonin.
This raises some questions about the drug’s effectiveness, and whether the problem it is trying to solve is the responsibility of science or society. Some people have pointed out that altering sexual desire in women is not the equivalent of treating physiological arousal in men, yet media and advertisements still refer to the drug as “female-Viagra”. Dr. Emily Nagosoki, an expert in human sexuality, notes that sudden lack of desire for sex is very common in postmenopausal women: “...The ‘disorder’ [Addyli] treats (or, 90% of the time, fails to treat) isn't a disorder at all but a normal, healthy variation in human sexual response”.
Others add that taking a psychoactive drug on a daily basis to solve a non-problem raises genuine safety concerns. In fact, the FDA had previously rejected Addyi twice for this reason as well as insufficient evidence for effectiveness. Andrew Pollack, a business of biotechnology analyst, explains that the drug was only approved after Sprout “made a mockery of the system that regulates pharmaceuticals and had co-opted the women’s movement to pressure the FDA.”
Stephen Colbert even weighed into the debate on The Late Show:
Sprout Pharmaceuticals holds firm in its claim that the drug is effective and implies Addyi is even a win for feminism and women’s sexual agency. However, many feminist groups have rejected this notion, writing it off as an advertising tactic to get women to believe they have an inherent problem if their sexual relationships with men are not satisfying.
Deceptive advertising can be pervasive in the pharmaceutical industry. This is where the concept of condition branding becomes important. Being able to identify whether a drug and the maker’s motives are helpful or harmful is the key to making sure science works to improve society rather than profit from it.