Big Pharma Invents a New Disease – Adult ADHD

It’s tough being a drug company. You perceive a market for a drug – for example, children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – invent a drug that seems to help, and then cash in. The tough part comes when you saturate the market, such that sales of your profitable drug plateau and don’t show any signs of ever increasing.

That’s what has happened with the incredibly lucrative market for drugs to treat ADHD. Most of the 4.5 million American children diagnosed with the disorder are already taking them. True, the pharmaceutical giants could theoretically be satisfied with raking in $200 to $750 per box of 100 pills from these 4.5 million customers, but that’s not how pharmaceutical companies think. Why be satisfied with this small a market for our drugs, they think, if there is a larger market to be developed for the same drugs? Voilà. Adult ADHD.

Take this test to see if you have Adult ADHD

1. Often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, at work, or during other activities.

2. Often has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activities.

3. Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly.

4. Often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace.

5. Often has difficulty organizing tasks and activities.

6. Often avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort.

7. Often loses things necessary for tasks or activities.

8. Is often easily distracted by extraneous stimuli.

9. Is often forgetful in daily activities.

These are the criteria used to diagnose attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder according to the American Psychiatric Association. (Note: this is a shortened list, with the “for examples” deleted; to see the complete list, click here.)

To qualify as having ADHD, you have to suffer from six or more of these symptoms. If you felt that you do, congratulations…you’re normal. But also, congratulations…you may have Adult ADHD. See your doctor and soon you can be paying the same $200 to $750 per box of drugs to treat it that the parents of 4.5 million American children pay.

Does this sound suspicious to you?

It does to a number of doctors, public health officials, and pharmaceutical industry watchdog groups, too. As far back as 2006, the manufacturers of these drugs had begun forming “support groups” for adult sufferers of ADHD, of which there were none until the groups were formed. These groups publish magazines that are distributed to doctors nationwide, who naturally read about these groups’ work with this new disease they’d never heard of before and begin prescribing ADHD drugs to their adult patients. In 2010, this effort had escalated to lobbying the Social Security Administration to include ADHD in their list of disorders eligible for government benefits from such programs as basic Social Security, SSDI, Medicaid, vocational rehabilitation programs, and developmental disability programs.

At the same time, the pharmaceutical companies ramped up their advertising efforts for the ADHD drugs, now aimed at an adult audience. 15-second ads were run on the Times Square Jumbotron for Concerta, one of the ADHD drugs that sells for $651 per box of 100. The ad said, in 20-foot high letters scrolling across the screen, “Can’t focus? Can’t sit still? Could you or your child have ADHD?” followed by a website address. When people visited it, they received a coupon for a free 30-day trial of Concerta.

The bottom line

There are no blood tests or other clinical tests to determine whether you have ADHD. As you can see by the criteria used to diagnose the disorder above, “tests” to confirm it are misleading, and diagnosis is often based on guesswork. Critics of this multibillion-dollar campaign to market a new disease which may not exist to a new adult market point out that virtually all of the ADHD drugs in question are a form of “speed,” similar to amphetamines. Some of them are amphetamines.

The ad running on the Times Square Jumbotron can be viewed, say these critics, as what it really is – an attempt to get millions of American adults hooked on legal speed. The companies that created this ad even use the cliché line often attributed to schoolyard drug pushers in movies: “The first one’s free.” The ad was seen by an estimated nine million people. It won’t be the last one they see.


  1. You have a MPH degree – a Master's of Public Health Administration. You are not a physician. What did you do at the NIH in Bethesda?

    You clearly don't know what it's like to go through life with undiagnosed ADHD – you don't outgrow a neurologically-based condition.

    Whatever you MAY have been paid to write this article, you were overpaid. Useless conjecture and spreading disinformation couched in pseudo professional credentials, is irresponsible.

  2. Do you think Big Pharma made up Alzheimer's disease too? A definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease can be made only through autopsy after death, by linking clinical measures with an examination of brain tissue. The increasing numbers of reported cases must just be a ploy to sell drugs?

  3. Stumbled upon this site whilst researching the views outside the country where I live towards ADHD medication. There are some physicians here who argue that it is far less common than is being diagnosed. Slightly annoying, but at least they can point to objective facts and evidence in their reasoning rather than pull the old “big pharma” conspiracy out. There is no such thing as big Pharma, they are just big companies, just like in all other industries. Some do better than others. The idea that modern medicine is in any way harming its own consumers for profit is woefully ignorant. We live longer and more comfortable lives than ever before. If someone’s quality of life is improved by taking a tablet, how is that a bad thing? Just say hypothetically that it was an invention by the drug companies. The result is the same. That profits were made, and people improved their life overall every day from consuming the medications on offer.

  4. Thank you Ms. Siegfried.

    Indeed, there is more to the business than appearances suggest, and surely corporations don’t spend millions from the goodness of their heart.

    I would insist the ADHD condition is plenty real – and not fun at all, especially growing up – but you’re right that companies are greedily taking advantage.

    Check out “If Antidepressant Commercials Were Honest – Honest Ads” for a more fair view.

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Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.

Juliette's resume, facebook: juliette.siegfriedmph, linkedin: juliettes, (+31) 683 673 767

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