Pharmaceutical firms are conjuring up diseases in order to sell more drugs, according to a special issue of the Public Library of Science Medicine released last week. And it warned that the medicalisation of conditions such as menopause turns healthy people into a nation of patients.

“Disease-mongering is the selling of sickness that widens the boundaries of illness and grows the market for those who sell and deliver treatments,” say the guest editors, Australian journalist Ray Moynihan and clinical pharmacologist David Henry of Newcastle University, Australia.

The hard-hitting editorial says that new diseases are created by panels of ‘industry-funded’ experts and are promoted by disease-awareness campaigns driven by the sector itself to “sell drugs rather than inform the public about preventing illness or maintaining health.” But not only does ‘disease-mongering’ invent new diseases for treatment, it also popularises little known conditions – for example restless legs syndrome, defined as a compelling urge to move one’s legs, and female sexual dysfunction.

Both Boehinger Ingelheim and GlaxoSmithKline earlier this month saw the thumbs up from Europe’s drug advisory board for their respective treatments for restless legs syndrome, Sifrol/Mirapexin (pramipexole) and Adartrel (ropinirole), which they say affects millions of people across Europe alone. However, one PLoS report analysing news coverage of the RLS syndrome as a whole* says that the media have exaggerated both the prevalence of the condition and the need for treatment, and offers a word of caution in failing to consider problems associated with over-diagnosis.

But “drug companies are by no means the only players in this drama. We have learned how informal alliances of pharmaceutical corporations, PR companies, doctors’ groups and patient advocates promote these ideas to policymakers – often using mass media to push a certain view of a particular health problem,” the PLoS report says.

This effect has been spectacularly conveyed by attempts in the USA to convince the public that 43% of women live with sexual dysfunction, it adds, “at a time when pharmaceutical companies perceive a need to build and maintain markets for their big-selling products and when pipelines for new and genuinely innovative medicines are perceived as weak.”

However, Richard Ley, a spokesperson for the UK’s pharmaceutical industry body - the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry - told PharmaTimes that he completely disagrees with the allegation that pharmaceutical companies invent diseases.

“Pharmaceutical companies research diseases but they don’t classify them,” he stressed, “that is the role of bodies such as the World Health Organisation.”

On the topic of disease awareness programmes, Mr Ley commented these provide a very useful public information service, particularly for embarrassing problems for which people might not otherwise seek treatment.

“It is naïve to say we are not in the business of marketing medicines,” he added, “but only to people who really need them and the safeguard is always the health professional. They must make the right judgement for a given individual. It is not right to denigrate someone’s illness by dismissing its importance.”

* There was no mention of GSK or BI in the report.