Druglord Ciba-Geigy pushes Ritalin on kids
May/June 1997

The lunch time bell rings at the nearby elementary school. However, instead of bursting out of the classroom for a vigorous hour of play, the children head for the school clinic where the nurse stands waiting. The students stand in line and receive a personalized plastic cup containing a rainbow assortment of pills.

While this scenario might sound somewhat exaggerated, whether it be receiving the medication from the school nurse or sneaking it out of a lunch bag, it is the daily reality of millions of young people across the US. The number of young people on anti-depressants, behavior modifiers and other pharmaceutical mind altering substances has soared within the past decade. One drug in particular has been prescribed at an outstanding rate and gained a great deal of national attention in the past few years: d-methylphenidate hydrochloride, known more commonly by its market name, Ritalin.

Ritalin is a medication most commonly used to treat people who are diagnosed with what is called Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) which is also commonly linked with a Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). There is no single universal definition for ADD/ADHD, though it is generally defined as developmentally "inappropriate" inattention and impulsivity (with or without hyperactivity). Some research done in the past five years has suggested a chemical imbalance or underdevelopment in the brain might be the cause of ADHD, but there is still no conclusive evidence on what causes ADHD. In order to diagnose the disorder, doctors have a list of some 14-21 criteria. The final diagnosis is subjectively based on the patients' personal testimony as well as that of teachers, parents, bosses, etc.

Although Ritalin has been on the market for about forty years, it is only in recent years that it has gained international attention. Between 1990 and 1995 Ritalin consumption increased six fold. Not surprisingly, the United States leads the world in Ritalin usage, consuming 80% of the world's total supply ( five times more than the rest of the world combined). In 1995 approximately 1.5 million Americans were prescribed the medication. Today the number is estimated to be at least 2 million. Meanwhile, Ciba Geigy Pharmaceuticals, the main producer and distributor of Ritalin, has been grossing as much as $450 million on Ritalin alone.

The large marketing success of Ritalin is in a large part due to the efforts of a national group called C.H.A.D.D (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorders), a support group for individuals, and their family members, who have been diagnosed with the disorder. C.H.A.D.D has effectively disseminated information on a large scale throughout the country on the effectiveness of Ritalin as a treatment for ADD. In 1995, however, an investigative report by journalist J. Merrow aired on PBS which exposed new information on the group. Since 1988 Ciba-Geigy had quietly been giving CH.A.D.D. almost $1 million in grants and services, using the group as a prop to distribute misleading information and promote drug therapy to hundreds of thousands of individuals, parents and teachers. Certain physicians have also been contributing to the Ritalin explosion; one study performed claimed that a small number of primary care physicians have been writing nearly half of the prescriptions for younger children nationally.

Since the time that the report was produced, Ciba-Geigy Pharmaceuticals has merged with another chemical giant, Sandoz, to create a new venture called Novartis. The merger was one of the largest to date, giving Novartis dominance over the world's pharmaceutical, agricultural and biotechnology industry.

There is still no conclusive evidence on how the drug actually works in decreasing hyperactivity or providing people with a clearer mental focus. The seeming paradox of the treatment is that it is actually an amphetamine, a stimulant, in the same family as cocaine and speed. The most commonly accepted theory is that Ritalin stimulates inhibitory or "sluggish" cells in the frontal lobes of the brain which allow the person to regain control and be able to sit still, etc., while increasing his or her alertness. Because it is an amphetamine (or level II drug), the DEA puts an annual limit on Ritalin production based on estimated medical need. Over the past five years Ciba Geigy has accused the DEA of creating an unneeded shortage and has attempted to have Ritalin reclassified to an unregulated drug category.

Like most medications, Ritalin has an extensive list of adverse side effects, the most common short term effects experienced being loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping and increased irritability and mood swings. Because the medication is short acting and does not build up in the blood stream, many people experience a distinct phase when its effects kick in and wear off. This results in what is medically termed as "rebound hyperactivity," when the supposed symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity return. Children who experience the rebound while on the medication are often given increased dosages of Ritalin until their behavior is properly "modified". There has been insufficient research on the long term effects of the medication, according to Ciba Geigy's own report to the FDA. What research that has been done has suggested decreased growth, tics (abnormal muscle twitches) and paranoia as major long term side effects.

Perhaps an unpredicted side effect of Ritalin is its potential for abuse. When crushed into a powder and snorted, Ritalin becomes a drug extremely similar to cocaine and speed (and equally harmful and addictive as well.) On elementary, middle and high school campuses across the U.S. a black market has been created for Ritalin. Some just sell their medication instead of taking it, while others intentionally convince their parents and teachers that they have ADD/ADHD in order to get their own prescription.

There is still debate, out of the scope of the mainstream, as to whether or not ADD/ADHD actually exists or if it is just another culturally created disorder. Though there may be a small number of individuals who display extreme symptoms, it seems that almost everyone in the U.S. could be diagnosed as having ADD. Regardless of whether the disorder truly exists in some cases, it is clear that Ritalin is being over-prescribed. Some doctors and journalists, however, have to tried to argue that a heightened understanding of the disorder by both the public and the medical community in recent years has enabled more people to be treated that would normally go undiagnosed.

The group most affected by the over prescription of Ritalin is young people. At least 80% of the prescriptions written for Ritalin are for children and adolescents; boys particularly are four times more likely to be diagnosed with ADD than girls.

While Ritalin may increase alertness and focus for young people, it is not actually successful in improving learning. Children on the drug may be able to complete tasks, but their actual intake of information is not elevated by it. What Ritalin is successful at is controlling young people's behavior in the classroom. In many cases, any child that is a "disturbance" in the classroom or does not comply to the demands of mass education is forced to be on the medication. Some children are not even allowed to re-enter the classroom after being recommended for Ritalin until their prescription is filled by a doctor. Additionally, as a part of the Goals 2000 program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, more and more schools are being given funding to have health officials at school clinics that can test and prescribe medications for emotional, social and mental disorders on site.

The effects of the dehumanizing control the compulsory schooling system has over young people cannot be hidden. It is when we are young that the cycle of oppression begins. We are taught that we have little say or control over anything in our lives; we must go to school, we must complete the designated tasks, we must do what our parents tell us without questioning because that is "just the way it is." But humans will comply to such submission for only so long. Of course young people are having problems staying still and not fidgeting or concentrating on or completing tasks. We can't stop fidgeting because we are constantly in fear of being punished by adults, physically or psychologically. We fidget because our bodies are full of pesticides, chemicals and processed food and sugar that adversely affect us. We can't concentrate because we were raised with television screens, sound bites, and now computers, instead of love, attention and fresh air. We can't complete tasks at school because they are meaningless to us, have nothing to do with our interests or real skills that are useful to us in the world.

Take a child diagnosed with ADHD and place him or her on a quiet farm for a month, allow him or her to work on a project of interest without adult control, or modify his or her diet and decrease the amount of sugar consumption and even more severe cases of the symptoms will probably begin to disappear.

There are several alternatives to Ritalin to treat ADHD which are just as effective, if not more so, and less harmful. Examples include dietary programs, acupuncture and Chinese medicine, and biofeedback therapy. Ritalin is not the answer. It is yet another bogus attempt to remedy the unhappiness, alienation and discontent that our society induces in all of us in the form of a little pill. It is strongly encouraged that anyone taking Ritalin or considering putting their child on it think about why they are doing it. Is it really healing the root of the problem, or is it a quick fix to remove the responsibility from parents and teachers? There is plenty of information available from various sources which is worth researching to make your own decision whether Ritalin is right for you or your child. Perhaps the most important thing of all is to listen to those people themselves who are or have been on Ritalin. As Matt Scherbel wrote when he was in 8th grade for his school newspaper (Pyle Middle School, MD):

"Schools don't like extremists who like to think and question. They are the dreamers. That doesn't mean that they are wrong. They just don't fit the norm, so they are labeled and damned, labeled as ADD.

"So the doctors dope us up with Ritalin and control our minds with low doses of speed. The teachers pay us no mind until our minds are under control. It screws up our train of thought and makes us one dimensional. We get headaches and almost get depressed getting on and off it. It takes away extra imagination and flow of the mind, hence destroying the true, purest ideas of my mind. I can't think right, and for six hours of the day I'm not me. I'm what the system would like me to be. . . .

"Who is going to get further in life, the schmo with the same textbook answers and ideas or the 'ADD kid' who can offer ideas that have never been thought of or a new perspective on something?

"I truly look forward to the day when Ritalin isn't an answer. To the day when every student is labeled 'learner.'"

Information obtained from the following sources:

For more information on alternatives to Ritalin write:
Center for Study of Psychiatry, 4628 Chestnut St., Bethseda, MD 20814
The Feingold Association, PO BOX 6550, Alexandria, VA 22306

The author is interested in working on a video project interviewing young people on their experiences with Ritalin. Anyone interested in contributing can contact her through the Iguana (352 378-5655.)

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