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How Prescription Medication Has Changed Over Time: A Look at the Pharmaceutical Industry

Last Updated on April 19, 2024 by Carol Gillette

Alternative to Meds Editorial Team
Written by Diane Ridaeus
Medically Reviewed by Dr Samuel Lee MD

Prescription medicine has become a multi-billion-dollar industry that continues to grow year after year. With the development of technology and medical advancements, the pharmaceutical industry has birthed hundreds of thousands of new drugs. While some of these advancements appear to positively impact society, evidence suggests the drug industry places profit above genuinely helping the public needs. There has been much debate about whether the pharmaceutical industry creates more significant problems than it solves.

Has society been written a prescription for disaster in mental health care?
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What Is Prescription Medicine?

Prescription medicines, more commonly called prescription drugs or prescriptions, are chemicals produced or synthesized in a lab. Naturally occurring substances cannot be patented, so these lie outside the pharmaceutical industry. Natural substances can be synthesized however, such as fentanyl or synthetic cannabis, and once licensed, are approved for sale. Health care practitioners are encouraged, and mandated in some cases, to prescribe synthetic drugs to treat (reduce symptoms) or prevent or slow disease. Curing a disease is not the goal. Pharmaceutical companies experiment in their labs to produce new ones each year, and then apply for a license from a drug regulator such as the FDA, permitting them to sell these medications, which medical practitioners dispense through pharmacies. It costs a lot of money to get a drug to the point where it can be legally licensed and sold, and the profits go back to the drug manufacturer.

A patient must receive a prescription for pharmaceutical drugs from a health care practitioner who is legally licensed to write a prescription before legally obtaining and using these medications. Prescription drugs can only legally be distributed with a valid prescription and standardly require a medical consultation by a practitioner who is licensed to prescribe.2,11,15

Historical Notes — Pharmaceutical Medicine

Prescription medication history dates back a very long time, to at least 1820 BCE10 when Egyptian physicians prepared and prescribed drugs for their patients. The root words include “pharmakeia” mentioned in the bible, and “pharmaceuticus” from the late Latin, and “pharmakeutikos,” from the early Greek. “Pharmakeia” is defined by some scholars as giving of drugs, magic potions, associated with the casting of spells, presumably for increased efficacy. A sorcerer, like a drug maker, would have been called a “pharmakeus” back then. “Pharmaceuticus” is traced back to Latin, meaning “of drugs,” or “healing or harmful medicine,” and “pharmakuetikos” from the Greek, reportedly meant “giver of drugs, poisoner.” 20

The field of prescription medicine in the US was unregulated until the early 1800s.11 In 1906 the original Food and Drug Act was passed to protect consumers safety. It may seem strange to us that it was at one time common practice for doctors to prescribe “medicinal alcohol,” 1 or heroin,16 or cocaine, which was an over-the-counter “cure-all” as well as the magic ingredient that launched a popular soft drink in 1886.17

over-prescription and addictionIn modern times, marketing strategy for increased sales has been the keynote of the pharmaceutical industry. By the mid-1990s, pharmaceutical companies had developed new opioid medications that were marketed as non-addictive. Drug manufacturer Purdue spent $200 million in a single year to aggressively promote OxyContin© as a non addictive painkiller, becoming a near overnight blockbuster drug, profiting from $multi-billions in sales. These drugs were being advertised heavily to doctors and the public at large. In the early 2000s, painkillers became a significant part of American culture and became more widely available to the public. However, in 2007 Purdue was criminally charged, though no one went to jail, and paid a mere $437 million in fines for their misleading advertising claims, and after deaths from prescribed opioids rose to the top of the leading causes of death in the US. Apparently this was not enough to bring about change in practices, as Purdue also plead guilty to fraud and kickback charges in 2020, leading to the dissolution of the company. And yet again, no one went to jail.4,6-8,13,14,18,19

The practice of misleading advertising leading to over-prescribing, as well as covering up adverse drug reactions have damaged the reputation of prescription manufacturers, according to those who take the time to research the medical literature. Prescription medications have become more widely available than ever before, while also elevating the potential to be fatal if misused, overused, or over-prescribed.3,12,13

How Have Prescription Drugs Become Dangerous?

The increase in prescription medication has exploded into an epidemic of drug addiction, dependency, and death. The term “drug abuse” is perhaps more a reflection of social attitudes than science. Some would say it may even be a term poised to let drug manufacturers off the hook in legal or ethical implications. The truth is no one starts out with the goal to become an addict. The cellular response to an addictive substance is the foundation of addiction, and some may consider the concept of drug abuse an unnecessary pejorative to describe someone becoming the victim of addiction, for example, becoming addicted to painkillers, or antidepressants, or stimulants. All of these addictions can become life-threatening if left untreated.5

Some common reasons people use prescription medications:
  • To seek relief from problems such as physical pain, anxiety, insomnia, or depression
  • To ease the pain of the mental, emotional, and physical symptoms of drug withdrawal
  • Recreation, curiosity, boredom
  • Because physicians do not commonly offer alternatives
  • Lack of education about nonpharmacological treatments

Drug dependency develops unwittingly in many cases. However, medication withdrawal treatment does exist for anyone in need of resources and support to help achieve sobriety

What Are the Side Effects of Prescription Drugs?

TV commercials and advertisements are required by law to at least give a toll-free number where you can ask someone about side effects, and some ads end with a droning narrator reciting the shocking tsunami of the drug’s side effects, which, somewhat surprisingly, doesn’t legally have to include all of them.18 Most consumers begin taking a drug for some desired health benefit. It is crucial to inform oneself of the potential harm before starting on any drug that can lead to injury, dependence or addiction.

Some prescription drug side effects may include:
  • Addiction, dependence
  • Suicidal ideation, worsened depression
  • Dizziness, drowsiness, fatigue, weakness
  • Injury to vital organs, heart damage, renal failure
  • Respiratory failure, coma, death
  • Emerging psychoses, mania, other psychiatric symptoms
  • Electric zaps, tingling, neurological damage
  • Tardive dyskinesia, spasms, tremors
  • Akathisia
  • Internal bleeding
  • Anxiety
  • Seizures
  • Aches and pains, severe migraine, joint pains
  • Eye disorders
  • Speech disorders
  • Movement disorders, difficulty walking
  • Digestive disorders, diarrhea, constipation, nausea
  • Weight gain, weight loss
  • Rashes
  • Life-threatening allergic reactions
  • And many others

If you experience these or any other severe symptoms of concern, call your medical provider or 911 immediately.

How Has the Pharmaceutical Industry Changed Over the Years?

The increase in prescription drug use and the presence of new medications on the market have made it more difficult for society including its physicians to determine whether these drugs are helping individuals. However, by exploring the common questions that arise when discussing the ways prescription medication has changed and how the pharmaceutical industry has changed over the years, we begin to see important details that people should be aware of so they can make informed decisions.

increased prescription drug usePharmaceutical companies have been criticized for their role in increasing prescription drug use. To increase profit, some of these companies have misled consumers about the benefits vs risks of prescription medication, leading to an increase in prescriptions. Look no further than the thousands of lawsuits against companies that produced opioids for contributing to a drug addiction crisis in our society.

Additionally, pharmaceutical companies spend exorbitant amounts of money on lobbying efforts to allow them to extend the “approved” use of medication, to expand their target markets, regardless of potentially dangerous drug interactions and risk of adverse effects.

Recent trends have clearly shown a shift in the industry where profits are prioritized over people’s health and well-being. These include the increased prices of prescription drugs, increased recommendation of prescription drugs, censoring and overlooking natural and holistic health care, and an increase in targeted lobbying in favor of prescription drugs.

Prescription Drug Prices Increase Year After Year

Why are prescription drugs rising? Prescription drug prices have been on the rise for years. People forced into a corner by overpriced prescriptions may not have insurance that covers everything, yet they feel pressured to obtain what are sometimes inexplicably expensive medications.

Some reasons prices are increasing may include:
  • The pharmaceutical industry is profit-driven, even beyond patient health concerns18
  • Lack of competition for brand-name drugs, allowing companies more power to increase prices without losing customers
  • Intense lack of transparency about drug prices
  • Increase in mergers and acquisitions among pharmaceutical companies that reduce competitiveness in the market
  • Government programs that do not negotiate the cost of prescription medicine
  • Because consumer education is inadequate concerning alternative treatments

Prescription Medicine Is Seen as the First Line of Treatment

Physicians are trained to treat symptoms or illness instead of addressing root causes for symptoms. This is a shift from traditional wisdom in medicine that utilized natural treatments. Today’s pharmaceutical industry has pretty well monopolized the practice of medicine.

The result is that individuals are heavily encouraged to use prescription medication to treat symptoms that could have been eased by a healthy lifestyle, change in diet, clearing out neurotoxic accumulations, or other simple, safe, natural remedies.

It is true that in certain cases, the only remedy that can avert the crisis is going to be a prescription drug. In the majority of cases that seek medical help, the first line of treatment is going to be a prescription drug even though much less toxic remedies could have been provided.

We Have Become an Overly Prescribed Society

In recent decades, we have seen a significant increase in the number of prescriptions being written. Drug advertising is everywhere, sending people to doctors and asking for specific medications to treat their symptoms. Prescription drugs are even promoted openly in TV shows, movies and popular songs. Western civilization, in particular, has become a culture of prescription drug use. But the over-prescription of drugs is fast becoming a global problem.

The increase in prescriptions could be a result of:
  • Voluminous advertising budgets of pharmaceutical companies that spend $billions marketing their drugs. Documentation shows, time after time, that pharmaceutical. companies have used deceptive marketing practices to convince people that their medication is the best option.
  • Lack of information given to patients about affordable natural remedies for healthy lifestyles, such as fitness or dietary changes.
  • Absence of education in medical schools on the benefits of lifestyle medicine, favoring prescription medication as the exclusive first-line treatment.
  • Drug makers funding the majority of clinical trials may introduce bias
  • Drug companies fund medical universities, who train future drug prescribers.18

Increased Regulations As a Result of Lawsuits

Despite censorship or denial, sometimes an issue becomes so serious that it cannot be ignored. Such is the case with pharmaceutical companies. While drug makers have been able to operate without much stringent oversight for decades, they have recently been placed under increased scrutiny as a result of lawsuits and increased government regulation.

The published CDC statistics showing that one of every 2 people in the US takes prescription drugs,14 shows just how dire the situation has become and how vital it is that it be addressed. Increased awareness of medication errors and litigation over drug damage have seen the Food and Drug Administration stepping up its efforts to monitor the pharmaceutical industry and improve its practices.15

Some of the most common regulations in place today include:
  • Regulatory efforts to crack down on deceptive marketing tactics by pharmaceutical companies
  • Requirements for pharmaceutical companies to disclose the actual cost of a drug, including research and development costs as well as marketing dollars that go into promoting their product
  • More transparency in clinical trials by pharmaceutical companies, which must register all drug studies with the government and share their findings publicly

A Society That Values Quick Results Over Patients’ Long-Term Health Goals

We are a society that values quick results. We want our pain gone by the time we leave the doctor’s office, but this quick-fix “band aid” approach is not always the best approach. Patients are often given medications to treat symptoms without any information on non-drug-based therapeutics.

Doctors, perhaps under time constraints, are prescribing more medication than ever before, but they aren’t teaching patients how to effectively manage their symptoms through lifestyle or diet or exercise or other changes and drug-free alternative treatments. They simply are not trained to do so in medical school. We have a perfect storm of increasing influence of the pharmaceutical industry and the lack of education on the benefits of lifestyle medicine.

Ease of Virtual Access to On-Demand Physicians

The rise of telemedicine has made it easier than ever for people to access physician services.9 Vital health care can be easily accessed through a simple video call with an on-demand physician. This makes it simple for people to get a diagnosis by explaining their symptoms and receiving a prescription for the appropriate treatment, without setting foot in a doctor’s office.9

Especially in these times, the advancement of telemedicine has been advantageous for providing health care access to populations that struggle to get to a facility, but it can serve as a double-edged sword, if one is only seeking a quick-fix prescription. Thankfully, there are also tele-physicians who offer thorough consultations leading to more comprehensive treatment options where these might serve the patient better.

Contact Us for a Better, Healthier Version of You … Naturally!

holistic alternatives to prescription drugsPrescription medication has changed over time, but not all changes are for the better. Pharmaceutical companies have shifted the medical industry in ways that prioritize profits over patient health.

If you’re looking for natural treatment options, you may wish to consult Alternative to Meds Center, where medically trained physicians, naturopathic physicians, and nutritional psychiatry are fundamental pillars of our programs for mental health recovery, safe medication withdrawal, and addiction treatment. Naturopaths and holistic medical practitioners are trained to provide patients with the tools they need to regain their natural mental health. A naturopathic physician will work with you to find the root cause of your symptoms rather than prescribing potentially injurious drugs that can only temporarily mask symptoms, and in fact, sometimes even worsen a person’s condition. We are here to help. Please call us at Alternative to Meds Center for more information on safe alternatives for natural mental health and how our inpatient programs may be the answer you have been looking for.


1. Ohio State University Archive Document Medicinal Alcohol [cited 2024 April 12]

2. DOJ Drug Laws and Drug Law Enforcement [cited 2024 April 12]

3. Van Zee A. The promotion and marketing of oxycontin: commercial triumph, public health tragedy. Am J Public Health. 2009;99(2):221-227. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2007.131714[cited 2024 April 12]

4. OECD Opioid Stats by Country Chart [cited 2021 Nov 15]

5. Lipari RN, Williams M, Van Horne SL, “Why Do Adults Misuse Prescription Drugs”SAMHSA Report [online] [cited 2024 April 12]

6. DOJ Purdue Pleads Guilty to Fraud and Kickback Conspiracies [Nov 24 2020] [cited 2024 April 12]

7. Plackett B, Study Finds Most Drug Commercials Misleading [Scientific American online] [cited 2024 April 12]

8. FDA CGMP Report [cited 2024 April 12]

9. Alexander G.C., et al. Primary Care Office-Based vs Telemedicine Care Visits During the COVID-19 Pandemic in the US [cited 2024 April 12]

10. David, R . The art of healing in ancient Egypt: a scientific reappraisal published by the Lancet Volume 372, Issue 9562, Nov 22, 2008 [cited 2024 April 12]

11. FDA report, A History of the FDA and Drug Regulation in the United States [cited 2024 April 12]

12. Van Zee A. The promotion and marketing of oxycontin: commercial triumph, public health tragedy. Am J Public Health. 2009 Feb;99(2):221-7. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2007.131714. Epub 2008 Sep 17. PMID: 18799767; PMCID: PMC2622774. [cited 2024 April 12]

13. SAFER, D.. Overprescribed Medications for US Adults: Four Major Examples. Journal of Clinical Medicine Research, North America, 11, sep. 2019. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 12 Apr. 2024.

14. CDC report, FastStats – Therapeutic Drug Use [cited 2024 April 12]

15. Benjamin DM. Reducing medication errors and increasing patient safety: case studies in clinical pharmacology. J Clin Pharmacol. 2003 Jul;43(7):768-83. PMID: 12856392. [cited 2024 April 12]

16. Hosztafi S. A heroin története [The history of heroin]. Acta Pharm Hung. 2001 Aug;71(2):233-42. Hungarian. PMID: 11862675. [cited 2024 April 12]

17. editors: . Cocaine – HISTORY [cited 2024 April 12]

18. FDA report: Basics of Drug Ads | FDA [cited 2024 April 12]

19. Light DW, Lexchin J, Darrow JJ. Institutional corruption of pharmaceuticals and the myth of safe and effective drugs. J Law Med Ethics. 2013 Fall;41(3):590-600. doi: 10.1111/jlme.12068. PMID: 24088149. [cited 2024 April 12]

20. Etymology Online, “pharmaceutical, adj.” [cited 2024 April 12]

Originally published by Lyle Murphy

This content has been reviewed and approved by a licensed physician.

Dr. Samuel Lee

Dr. Samuel Lee is a board-certified psychiatrist, specializing in a spiritually-based mental health discipline and integrative approaches. He graduated with an MD at Loma Linda University School of Medicine and did a residency in psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. He has also been an inpatient adult psychiatrist at Kaweah Delta Mental Health Hospital and the primary attending geriatric psychiatrist at the Auerbach Inpatient Psychiatric Jewish Home Hospital. In addition, he served as the general adult outpatient psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente.  He is board-certified in psychiatry and neurology and has a B.A. Magna Cum Laude in Religion from Pacific Union College. His specialty is in natural healing techniques that promote the body’s innate ability to heal itself.

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How Prescription Medication Has Changed Over Time: A Look at the Pharmaceutical Industry
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