P is for Prozac

How a government corrupted by special interests is spawning a generation of medicated preschoolers.

Published March 21, 2000 6:12PM (EST)

At a White House meeting with health and education officials Monday, Hillary Clinton tapped into a growing national concern and outlined proposals for warning labels and a wide-ranging study on the use of Ritalin. "Some of these young people," she said, "have problems that are symptoms of nothing more than childhood or adolescence." This is good news indeed, coming at a time when those promoting the legal drugging of America's children score fresh triumphs every day.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found a dramatic increase in the number of 2- to 4-year-olds on Prozac, Ritalin and other mood-altering drugs. But the same legislators who talk tough about their commitment to fighting illegal drugs seem oblivious to the dangers of pushing powerful prescription drugs on preschoolers. Even though Prozac hasn't been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for children under 18, and methylphenidate -- the generic name for Ritalin -- carries a warning against its use by children younger than 6, doctors everywhere are prescribing these drugs to children.

In a particularly stunning development, the drug industry has even enlisted the cuddly characters from Sesame Street as unwitting, but no doubt highly effective, soldiers in the fight for our children's hearts and minds. By purchasing 15-second "enhanced underwriter acknowledgments" -- PBS-speak for commercials -- Pfizer has linked its antibiotic Zithromax with Elmo, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. How long before Eli Lilly decides to get in on the act and change Sesame Street's traditional sign-off: "Today's show was brought to you by the letter 'P,' which stands for Prozac, and the number '2,' which is how many of the little green pills you should take each morning to make sure you have another 'sunny day, chasing the clouds away!'"

And if you think that time will never come, you probably also thought that there would never come a time when the chairman of the House's health subcommittee, engaged in drafting legislation affecting prescription-drug costs, would be holding a $2,000-per-person fund-raiser hosted by Eli Lilly, Johnson & Johnson and Bristol-Myers. But that's precisely what Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., did just last week -- as well, of course, as failing to exercise any oversight while the drug industry pushes its chemical crutches to our nation's children.

It was the U.N.-sponsored International Narcotics Control Board that recently lambasted the United States for overprescribing stimulants such as Ritalin -- pointing out that America consumes more than 90 percent of all the methylphenidate taken worldwide.

The official psychiatric diagnostic manual describes as symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder "squirms in seat," "interrupts or intrudes on others" and "is often on the go." Sounds a lot like childhood, a condition that -- when left untreated -- tends to cure itself over time. As Dr. Julie Magno Zito, the lead author of the journal study, put it: "It is not really clear that children this young could meet the diagnostic criteria for either attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or depression."

Despite these warning signs from the medical profession, the mainstreaming of legal drugs for kids continues unabated. The latest battlefront is our nation's schools, where teachers and administrators increasingly demand that parents of rambunctious children -- known in bureaucratese as hyperactive and attention- deficient -- either put them on drugs or face expulsion. Dr. Peter Breggin, author of "Reclaiming Our Children," says that his practice has been "flooded" with families at the end of their rope over these threats and demands.

One of Breggin's patients is Michael Weathers, a fourth-grader at the Alden Place Elementary School in Millbrook, N.Y., who was given a succession of psychiatric drugs, including Ritalin and Paxil, starting in the second grade. When his parents, disturbed by the manic side effects, took him off the drugs, the school reported them to Child Protective Services, charging them with, among other things, medical neglect.

Michael's father, Roman, explains that although their case is an extreme example, it's far from an isolated one. He says that half of the students in his son's school were on Ritalin, and that the school nurse had to go along on field trips to administer the kids' medicine. Yet the school's principal, Fred Merz, refused to answer even a general question about what percentage of his students were on mood-altering drugs.

Despite the fact that the number of children on Ritalin has skyrocketed from 1 million in 1990 to 4 million today, and that we now have more than a million children on Prozac, there are no signs of deceleration. "In America today," Breggin told me, "if you can toddle along, your pediatrician can give you a psychoactive drug."

Perversely, the only good news on the legal drug front, other than the first lady's warning, stems from a drug-fueled crime spree that culminated in a bank robbery: The robber was acquitted by a Connecticut judge because he was under the influence of Prozac when he committed the crime. This is the first time the so-called "Prozac defense" has worked, after at least 77 previous attempts in courtrooms across the country. It's also the first legal opening for what now must become an ongoing investigation into the connection between outbreaks of violence and drugs such as Prozac and Luvox -- the meds of choice for school shooters Kip Kinkel and Eric Harris.

So is there any chance that members of the FDA Oversight Committee -- which should be renamed the FDA Blind-Eye Committee -- will wake up from their donor-induced stupor? It would certainly be nice if they did it before our kids are turned into a troop of drugged-out zombies, while we grown-ups fight a $40 billion-a-year drug war in their name.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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Children Drugs Healthcare Reform Hillary Rodham Clinton