Pharmacy: Where you Buy Placebos

FavoritePlaceboHave you visited your local pharmacy lately? I recommend it as a bit of a reality check. Check out the stuff for sale near the cash register – that’s the stuff they want to catch your eye as you pay, hoping you’ll ‘pick up something extra’. The stuff with the highest profit margin.

But before you head out, a few words about placebos.

There are many different kinds of placebos. When most people think of a placebo, they think “sugar pill“. Mosby’s Medical Dictionary defines placebo as: “an inactive substance, such as saline solution, distilled water, or sugar“. Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine defines placebo as: “a supposedly inert substance such as a sugar pill or injection of sterile water“.  

Now, back to the pharmacy. What’s on sale next to the cash register? Soda pop. Sugar water; Bottled water: sterile water; and energy drinks: saline water.  And how are they advertised? Refreshes, energizes, revitalizing. Feel good placebos.

“Wait a minute,” the critic intrudes, “don’t some of of those soda pops and energy drinks contain caffeine?  Caffeine is a drug, not a placebo.”

Well, actually there are two types of placebos.  Passive placebos, with no real effect, and active placebos – that have real physical effects.  Active placebos are, according to scientific studies, more effective than passive placebos. Caffeine, in sugar water, turns a passive placebo into an active placebo. Of course, if you check the immediate physical effects of sugar, you’ll find that a high amount of sugar, as in soda pop, is also an ‘active placebo’. Adding caffeine just makes it ‘more active’.  Sugar and caffeine both have ‘side effects’ as well, just like a real medicine. A short time after your sugar rush, you might get hit by a sugar crash.  And the morning after your caffeinated party – you will feel dehydrated and fuzzy.

What else is for sale by the door.  Sugar tablets.  They’re not even disguised. Some are white tablets, coated in sugar. Some are multi-colored sugar tablets – there are even serious competitors and advertisers in the field of multi-coloured sugar tablets. Some are flavored with spices, herbs, or even nuts.

If you have symptoms of halitosis, you can pick up a pack flavored with a herb – mint – to make your mouth sweeter. Of course if your bad breath is caused by illness, or unhealthiness – these pills won’t improve your health.  They’re just placebos.  They just make you ‘feel better’.

Next?  Chocolate bars. Some of them are still marked out in squares, so you can break off one tablet in the morning, and one in the evening, just like a medicine. Like anyone actually does that? Fry’s original chocolate pastilles, were small squares of chocolate that “in the most concentrated and agreeable form, all the virtues which are so justly attributed to the pure vegetable product of the Cocoa tree; it is a fine stomachic, producing a healthy reaction on the biliary secretions, and a fine and clear complexion.” Today’s chocolate advertisements don’t make those claims. The FDA would shut down sales if they did – even if the claims were true, they have not been approved by the FDA. Today’s chocolates are designed to make you feel like having more chocolate – that’s what’s best for sales. They have less chocolate, cheaper chocolate, and more sugar, fat, and salt, to tickle your fancy. In the past, chocolates were a medicine. Today – just a placebo. Feel good, mmm…. have another. When you are selling placebos, volume is they key to success. Make them big. Encourage the patient, oh – I meant ‘customer’ – go for the gusto. Get the two for one deal!

Then we see the potato chips. Finally, something that isn’t a placebo? Wait a minute, what’s the glycemic index on potato chips? Table sugar, according to sugar.org, has a glycemic index of 58.  Potato chips have a glycemic index of 54. Potato chips have more calories in carbs than they have in fat. They also have salt, which, when you consume them with your soda, creates a ‘saline solution’ in your mouth. No wonder you feel so good when you satisfy the munchies! Potato chips are smooth, creamy, crunchy slices of salted pre-sugar. mmmm…

But don’t stop there.  Look closer. Many of the placebos for sale at your local pharmacy are: SUGAR FREE.  You can have your placebo, and feel good about your weight at the same time.  As long as you don’t actually check the scientific research on sugar free.  Want  a clue? Check the size of people you see, the cash register, buying sugar free – you’ll know in a minute how well it’s working.

When I leave the pharmacy, surrounded by placbos, it makes me stop and think. I wonder  how many of the other products for sale in the pharmacy are “no better than placebos”?

to your health, tracy

Note: there is another, very different definition of a placebo, a clinical placebo. This post is not about clinical placebos.  Clinical Placebos are a very special class of placebo because the patient is deliberately not told that they will provide benefit.  These are placebos without the marketing, placebos without the lie. You cannot buy clinical placebos anywhere, you have to sign up to a ‘clinical study’ to receive them. Clinical placebos are “fake placebos”.  

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About Tracy Kolenchuk

Founder of Healthicine.org. Author of two books about healthicine; Healthicine: The Arts and Sciences of Health and Healthiness Healthicine: Introduction to Healthicine
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