Pill-Popping in Paradise

(Irish Eyes magazine, November 1999)

by Alison Benney

It’s the Millennium, and the Word is “manipulation.” By structuring time, we have created days, weeks, the New Year, the 21st century and the third millennium. Along with the resultant Y2K computer crisis, come the dabblings in environmental commodities, directing global “peace”, and managing worldwide trade, right down to the macro-manipulation of bio-chemistry and genes: genetically modified kids, designer food and clones of prehistoric beasts. Who’s in control here, anyway?

Our space-age bodies are processing chemicals from the air, water, weather and food that didn’t exist 100 years ago. The 20th century gave us birth-control pills, artificial sweetener, Valium, sport steroids, fake fat and smart drugs. By taking a pill, we are now able to have kids, avoid kids and abort kids. Pills can create muscle, eliminate fat, increase memory, grow hair and suppress the appetite. Nicotine, caffeine and cocaine are all old hat.

Today’s quick-fix panaceas are nutritional supplements and life-style enhancing drugs such as Viagra, Prozac, Melatonin and Redux, that are leading to the brave new world of 00. The concern of today’s otherwise healthy pill-popper is not necessarily curing an illness, but improving quality of life - which can be construed as either creative self-improvement or just a hypochondriac’s twist on narcissism.

Time management itself has been distilled in the form of Melatonin, the neurohormone that not only cures jetlag, but is also touted for its ability to fight aging, alleviate seasonal depression, enhance memory and cure aches and pains. International flight attendant Cindy Evans swears by 3 mcg twice a week to keep fresh while traveling through nine time zones in two days. “Flight attendants are the biggest consumers of supplements,” she stated. “We’re always tired, and with the combination of low oxygen levels and dehydration, I sometimes feel like someone’s physically beaten me.” The only known downside of Melatonin is taking too much and sleeping for two days, or purchasing it on the Internet and getting a dangerously impure dose.

That risk, as well as its strange side effects, hasn’t affected the popularity of Viagra, a potential sexual boon to the 52% of the American male population between 40 and 70 who claim to have difficulties getting an erection. It has an 80% success rate, but along with the cardiac risk for the elderly, 13% get headaches, 10% get hot flashes and 5% experience a temporary blue-tinted view of their loved one. According to a recently published book, Le Bonheur en pilules (Happiness in Pills), by Myriam Corn, most of the potency problem is - yes - psychological, mainly resulting from performance anxiety.

But for those who mix aphrodisiacs with anti-depressants, beware: they tend to suppress libido. The most famous mood regulator is Prozac, which is also touted for treating bulimia and backache. And while Melatonin is strictly regulated in France (but sold over the counter in the US), Prozac indulgence is encouraged. The French are the world’s leading consumers of tranquilizers, with more than 200 million boxes of calmants sold annually, three times the level of American consumption.

The USA, of course, has its own cultural malady: obesity. A whopping 55% of the American public is overweight, which has encouraged the development of various quick-fix diets and drugs. In addition to Olestra, the fake fat now cooked into “diet” potato chips and cookies, and following the quick rise and fall of Redux and Fen-Phen, the latest fat bypass treatment is Xenical. A slower and less radical treatment for weight loss, it retains the disagreeable side effects of diarrhea and is fairly expensive; a year’s prescription costs over 8,000F.

Who pays? Doctors, insurance companies and government medical programs are stymied over the question of whom to reimburse for what level of need. Humorous stories abound relating the sudden rise in sexual dysfunction that accompanied the marketing of Viagra. One doctor, quoted in Corn’s book, stated that he had prescribed the little blue pill to a homosexual man who needed a bit of structural support for intercourse, but refused it to a client with several wives who also needed some extra vigor. The reason given was his antipathy toward interfering with cultural mores...

So who decides who deserves? Are the pills that make us younger, smarter, more virile and happier limited to those who can afford them? Money, specifically profit, is a determining factor in research. We can cure impotence, but we can’t cure AIDS. Do prescriptions for paradise push aside priorities for healing? Former Health Minister Bernard Kouchner, addressing his reluctance to authorise reimbursement of Viagra, worried that, “We’re transforming a symptom into a sickness; erectile dysfunction is, after all, just a natural failing of man.”

Self-indulgence or self-healing? Only time will tell.