What will be the after-effects of Dr. Conrad Murray being found guilty of involuntary manslaughter this week? It’s easy to assume that his precipitous fall, from being the King of Pop’s private physician to being a convict, will serve as a warning to other doctors-to-the-stars – but the impact should be broader than that.
You might believe that Michael Jackson, as extremely troubled as he was indulged, was so many light years away from average citizens that he and his personal Dr. Feelgood have nothing to do with us. But regular Joes and Janes do have parallels to Jackson: We live in a culture where pharmaceuticals seem to be offered as solutions to every problem, where they’re widely accepted as Answer No. 1 to whatever ails us.
Conrad Murray is guilty, true, but he’s a scapegoat for all over-prescribing medicos, too – and the face of a prescription drug industry that’s run rampant for decades, especially since the Food and Drug Administration decided to allow pharmaceutical companies to advertise directly to the public in 1998. Just two years later, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that every dollar that the pharmaceutical industry spent on advertising yielded $4.20 in drug sales. The result: drugs hyped to the skies! Nowhere is the absurdity of it all clearer than in the ongoing assault of hideous drug warnings foisted on the television viewing public day and night. We’ll turn yellow, constipated and have thoughts of suicide? Lord have mercy.
As with everything in the U.S.A., celebrities lead the way. If they can sell handbags and cars by virtue of their glamour and panache, goodness knows they can sell drugs. Even ones we might not need or that might not be good for us.
It’s sickening to read the list of drugs to which Jackson was addicted and think about how they affected his body in his last months — and that this isn’t a case of speedballs or other illicit drugs such as killed stars like John Belushi and River Phoenix. Jackson’s drugs were all legal.
So were the drugs that took the life of Heath Ledger in 2008. The 28-year-old died after ingesting a lethal cocktail consisting of: OxyContin; Hydrocodone (an ingredient in Vicodin); Diazepam or Valium; Alprazolan or Xanax; Temazepam or Restoril (prescribed for insomnia); and Doxylamine, an antihistamine over-the-counter sleep aid sold in the U.S. as Unisom.
In 2007, a combination of prescription and over-the-counter drugs killed Anna Nicole Smith. Those included three antidepressant or anti-anxiety drugs, plus a sleep medication.
Dorothy Dandridge, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Keith Moon – they all died from overdoses of legal drugs as well. (Clint Eastwood’s new “J. Edgar” film starring Leonardo DiCaprio shows that even the iconic FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover had some help from a Dr. Feelgood. It’s the American way.)
In September 1979, Elvis Presley’s private physician, Dr. George Nichopoulos, was charged by the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners with “indiscriminately prescribing 5,300 pills and vials for Elvis in the seven months before his death.” He was later acquitted.
But not Conrad Murray.
Why might this case make more of an impact on society than other similar cases?
Because it comes at a time when Americans may be reaching a tipping point of annoyance with the overselling of drugs – drugs many can’t afford. It’s not the array of life-saving modern miracle medications that has people complaining, let’s be clear. It’s the obvious excesses. Restless legs and four-hour erections and other problems the public didn’t seem to have a decade ago tell the tale. Doctors have volunteered that these days, they find themselves talking patients out of medications they’ve seen on TV that aren’t appropriate for them. A public clamor for change could force advertisers to reach out to consumers in a more conscientious way – less offensive, ridiculous and manipulative. Prescription medication shouldn’t be treated like magic candy that can make it all better.
Which brings us back to Michael Jackson. Sadly, he seems to have thought exactly that.