Points Bookshelf: “Ten Drugs” by Thomas Hager

Editor’s Note:  Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University. As part of our Points Bookshelf series, he reviews Ten Drugs: How Plants, Powders, and Pills Have Shaped the History of Medicine (Abrams Press, 2019), and breaks his findings down into a few major takeaways.

 

Drug Use, BipartisanScreenshot 2019-05-23 08.34.57

Drug policy historians, academics and the press more generally often present drug use as though it were a marginal activity. We can fault a lot of this confusion on the arbitrary distinctions that are commonly made, starting with categories like legal and illegal use, which are then further subdivided and sliced into even more granular classifications.

Thomas Hager’s Ten Drugs whose focus is on prescription “medications,” opens the book by highlighting drugs’ ubiquity in American life: “More than half of all Americans take at least one prescription drug on a regular basis, and most of those who fall into that group take more than one (somewhere between four and twelve prescriptions per person per year, depending on which study you look at). One expert estimates that Americans takes an average of ten pills per person per day. Add in nonprescription drugs—over-the-counter vitamins, cold and flu remedies, aspirin, and other supplements—and run the numbers: Let’s say a low-ball estimate of two pills per day per American over an average of seventy-eight plus years of life. The total outcome comes to somewhere more than 50,000 pills, on average, in the average American’s lifetime. And there’s a good chance it’s a lot more. Americans constitute less than 5 percent of the world’s population but spend more than 50 percent of the money that flows into the world’s drug companies. And that’s not even counting illegal drugs.”

Once you throw in recreational and illegal drugs, this leaves no segment of society untouched. These figures could be interpreted as troubling, as our society grows ever reliant on psychological crutches to get through the day. Of course, while that’s partially true, there are also serious issues that have been left unresolved, to say nothing of the precarious state millions wake up to. Setting that aside, the larger point is our discourse is divorced from this underlying reality.  

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Points Interview: Lucas Richert

Today’s Points Interview features Dr. Lucas Richert, George Urdang Chair in the History of Pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and author of the newly-released Strange Trips: Science, Culture, and the Regulation of Drugs (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019). Richert is also a co-editor of the ADHS’s official journal, Social History of Alcohol and Drugs.

Screenshot 2019-03-13 08.55.24Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

Strange Trips is about “dangerous drugs and magic bullets,” terms that many of us have heard and used. The book investigates how and why these labels (may) change over time. Drugs and pharmaceuticals are far from fixed entities that exist in hermetically sealed bubbles! So I use a number of substances (such as heroin, LSD, cannabis, and others) to challenge the idea that scientific and medical understandings alone determine perceptions of drugs in the modern era. And I make the case that a complex negotiation is happening between medico-scientific knowledge and culture.

In 2019, I feel like we’re operating in an environment where drug policies and regulations are more fluid than ever before. At least as far as I can remember. Strange Trips offers a background for discussions surrounding medical cannabis or the opioid crisis in the present.

What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

I don’t narrate a linear history of a single substance. Instead, I spotlight several different drugs and put them in dialogue with each other. I definitely enjoy singular biographies of substances or pharmaceuticals, don’t get me wrong. But I reckon that blended analyses will be of value to the historiography as well.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

The character studies. The subtler moments. The finer details. Also: playing with the content and the form of an academic book.  Y’know, we have to take pleasure in the writing process.

Another thing I find intriguing about the book at this moment is the evolution: what was cut and why. Where (and who) I was when I started, versus where (and who) I am now. Silly, but true.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

For sure. There are always more avenues to explore. I look forward to seeing the results of various ongoing projects out there: pharmaceuticals and sexual politics (think LSD and conversion therapy); so-called lifestyle drugs; and stimulant use in Asia. I try and keep my finger on the pulse. This might also be a useful opportunity to invite submissions to Social History of Alcohol and Drugs: An Interdisciplinary Journal, which just moved to the University of Chicago Press.

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of the book, who should provide the narration?

That’s a difficult one to answer. For the English language version, I’ll pick two: Dame Judi Dench and Peter Capaldi. I’d have to think more carefully about other languages.

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David Herzberg, Nancy Campbell, and Lucas Richert (L-R), the co-editors of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs journal

Pharmaceutical Suspicion

Michele Bachman’s implosion on the campaign trail back in late September is now widely accredited to her suggestion that the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation. In an earlier post, I argued that pundits should think twice before dismissing Bachman due to her position on this topic, and while Bachman’s campaign collapsed a lot more quickly than I expected, I continue to think that her arguments about vaccination were potent ones.

"La Vaccine Mort en Avortant de Son Dernier Monstre," ca. 1800

There is a deep distrust of the pharmaceutical industry running through much of American culture – indeed, a Harris Poll last year found that just 11% of Americans consider pharmaceutical companies “honest and trustworthy,” a remarkable finding given that virtually all of us place the products of these companies in our bodies and many of us literally depend upon them for our lives. The idea that the drug companies are deceitful and, perhaps, predatorial is widespread, stretching from the halls of academia to the claims of Scientologists, from right wing populists to the Rainbow Family, from alternative health care practitioners and their allies in the New Age and health food movements, to patient advocacy groups, anti-psychiatrists, and more. Even libertarians, who usually trust just about anyone able to make gobs of money, exhibit a certain skepticism of the pharmaceutical industry when they start talking about legalizing marijuana and other drugs. So what’s going on here? Continue reading →

Rethinking Patent Medicines

Side Effects May Include Intellectual Snobbery

Joe Spillane recently pointed us to Caroline Rance’s blog, “The Quack Doctor,” and suggested that her posts – filled with advertisements for  things such as “Carter’s Little Liver Pills” and “Effervescent Brain Salt” –  form a “reasonable platform” for historians to “ask the larger questions about  consumer behavior, medical authority, business interests, and the role of each in shaping everything from health cultures to health care policy.” In that spirit, I’d like to suggest that those of us who write about the history of pharmaceuticals might want to reconsider our dismissive attitude toward the patent medicine industry. Rather than derisively laughing at the industry – look at that advertisement for brain salt! I can’t believe people bought that stuff! – perhaps it is time that we try to understand it on its own terms. Continue reading →