A New York Times article ( “Experts Question Placebo Pill for Children” --May 27, 2008) raises the question of whether giving children placebo pills for minor childhood illnesses is an ethical practice. Based on the premise that pharmacologically inert compounds can actually produce improvements in some medical conditions, Jennifer Buettner, a mother of 3 small children, developed a cherry-flavored chewable dextrose tablet, the first branded, pharmaceutical grade placebo. The therapeutic effect is based on the power of suggestion. If parents use the placebo to “trick” their children into thinking that they are taking real medicine, the children will consequently feel better.Notice that the brand name, Obecalp, is simply placebo spelled backwards. Mommies and daddies are tricky, no?
Of course, there might be a catch to this 'magic feather' catch-all cure for minor childhood complaints, as the New York Times points out. First of all, clinical studies that use placebos are usually double blinded - neither the patient nor the person giving the placebo knows its a fake, making it easier to fool the patient. So Obecalp might not work if the moms and dads handing it out know its a sham. Yet, your parents probably knew there was no Santa, and they still managed to fool you for years (man, were you gullible), so I'm not buying the kids-will-see-through-this argument.
A graver concern is that fake medicines could condition kids into thinking that popping pills is the solution to every problem:
“Kids could grow up thinking that the only way to get better is by taking a pill,” Dr. Brody said. If they do that, he added, they will not learn that a minor complaint like a scraped knee or a cold can improve on its own.
Dr. David Spiegel, a psychiatrist who studies placebos at the Stanford School of Medicine, said conditioning children to reach for relief in a pill could also make them easy targets for quacks and pharmaceutical pitches later. “They used to sell candied cigarettes to kids to get them used to the idea of playing with cigarettes,” he said.
Despite the controversy, Obecalp went on the market on June 1st - you can now buy it over-the-counter. So, we are left with the questions - is it ethical to give your kids a fake drug and tell them that it is medicine? What if you tell them it's just sugar, but it might help them feel better anyway? Will Obecalp create a psychological dependency on pills? Is this anything new, or have parents been taking advantage of the placebo effect since parenting began?
(Oh, and for the 'why is this a feminist issue' folks... 1. parenting continues to be a central concern for many women, and it unfortunately is a task that falls largely on mothers, whether they have a partner or not. 2. I'm a feminist, I want to talk about it, and this is my blog, gosh darn it!)
(Magic feather via)