Drugs on tap

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Britain has a serious and unnecessary drug habit, but the implications of our pill-forevery-ill culture go far beyond the adverse effects on human health. The complex chemicals in modern pharmaceuticals, as well as the manufacturing processes involved, leave a massive industrial footprint on the natural world that is largely ignored by both science and government.

While pharmaceuticals may often be lifesavers, they are also the product of a massive global industry that manufactures compounds that can interfere, in myriad and unintended ways, with complex biological functions. They are often designed to break down slowly and have yet-unknown consequences to the environment. As a new Government report points out, they also contribute significantly to global warming: NHS drug-purchasing alone is responsible for millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year.

We are an overmedicated society with older people and children receiving the vast majority of needless drug prescriptions, according to a 2003 report in the Journal of Social and Administrative Pharmacy. Our over-the-counter drug use is spiralling: UK sales of the painkiller Anadin in 2007 totalled nearly 27 million packs. As its maker, Wyeth Healthcare, boasts: 'If stacked on top of each other, they would reach over 56 times the height of Mount Everest.'

Our ever-growing consumption is encouraged by a powerful triumvirate: Big Pharma with its demanding shareholders; doctors who fire off quick fixes from their prescription pads and health journalists hungry for the next ‘medical breakthrough’ story. Having worked in health journalism for 20 years, I have frequently...

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John Naish is a freelance journalist and author of Enough: Breaking Free From the World of More (Hodder & Stoughton, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2009

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