For just a brief moment, there was no placebo; there was no such thing. Just for a day. Placebo had its 15 minutes of antifame. And then the day passed, placebos resurfaced, and they've ruled ever since, just as before.
That day was May 24, 2001, and the front page read Survey Finds Placebo Effect Imaginary. From the Associated Press:
"One of the most strongly held beliefs in medicine, that dummy pills or other sham treatments greatly help many patients, has been called into question by Danish researchers who found little or no "placebo effect" in dozens of studies."
Those Danes had looked at study after study after study in which the experimental new drug was compared to the look-alike dummy pill, the placebo. If the new drug was any good, test results beat that of the placebo. But where researchers bothered to include a third group receiving neither drug nor placebo, the Danes found that that group fared about the same as the placebo group. In other words, people sometimes get better all by themselves! They sometimes do, in fact, just about as often as those who received the placebo.
I spoke to a few people involved in pharmaceuticals. They hadn't read the paper and hadn't heard of the survey and didn't believe me. A few days later, I googled "placebo." Conventional wisdom ruled once again. My article was buried many pages back. It took forever to find it. (But you can find it here.) Nobody ever touched the subject again.
I suspect placebo is a notion too good and too lucrative to let die. After all, when you're testing your new drug for efficacy and you can't wait to urge people to ask their doctors if it's right for them, you want it to seem like it has teeth. If it's so much better than the placebo and the placebo is so much better than nothing.....well, you've got some powerful stuff. But if the gap between nothing and placebo collapses, then your drug is not so effective as you thought. Better to keep that gap intact: broad shoulders for all new meds to stand on!
The fact is big pharma pushes a lot of drugs on us. We (in the USA) spent $2.7 billion on prescription drugs in 1960. By 2002 it was $162 billion. There were 600 prescription drugs to choose from in 1960. By 2002 it was 9000. Plus 4000 over-the-counter. Are we that much sicker that we need all those meds? Or conversely, are we that much healthier now that we have them?
And where did this term "meds" come from anyway? They're medicines, dammit! Isn't "meds" a sneaky con attempt to make them seem warm and fuzzy, friendly-like?...every day you take your meds just like you take your tea, or chocolate.
That's why when Pop goes to the doctor and the doctor "puts him on" this or that drug, Pop tells him to forget it. Either that or because he's a stubborn cuss. But it's hard to tell someone 85 who's in perfect health that he'd be so much better if he'd just be gobble down more pills. It's a standing joke with us. I meet him in the doctors office, after his yearly physical. (it took forever to get him to agree to those, and he only did so for insurance reasons) "What do ya think, Pop?" I ask, "Want me to get a wheelbarrow for all your pills?" "HA!" he says, "that'll be the day! No pills!"
Most people, overawed by our age's slobbering idolization of science and the doctor's high-priest membership of that discipline, obediently swallow anything they're told to. Not Pop. "Your blood pressures too high," the doctor says, reading his machine. "I want you to take these beta-blockers." "What I'll do," Pop says, "is buy one of those machines myself and see if I can get the blood pressure down with diet and exercise. If I can't, then I'll think about your beta-blockers." He's been able to do exactly that, aided with an immediate drop in blood pressure that comes just from not being in the doctor's office, where we're all at our hypochondriac worst.
Yeah, the old boy thinks that if you steer clear of drugs then one day you'll die in your sleep or drop in your tracks. And isn't that what we all want? A graceful exit when we go. But if you gobble down every pill someone pushes at you, you'll waste away slowly sans dignity in a nursing home. Who's to say he's wrong?