With the announcement of pharmaceutical giant Roche, the developer of Valium, that it will close its factory, now is a good time to remember how revolutionary these light sedatives were half a century ago. These were the drugs that gave us a new way to control our inner demons and in turn helped us to live happier lives.
Valium's aggressive marketing
How did Roche convince doctors that it was okay to prescribe their patients a drug for more peace and serenity in their lives? And how did the doctors convince their patients? And how has the company's success in this venture shaped our collective attitude toward normal versus abnormal, stoic versus reckless, and the different ways available to deal with the ups and downs of everyday life?
Marketing, of course. It was first applied in conjunction with Librium, one of those evocative drug names that pharmaceutical companies invented. Librium was introduced in 1960 and quickly outperformed its predecessors, the barbiturates, because it had fewer side effects. Barbiturates are seen as heavy drugs that make people sleepy during the day. In addition, there was a risk of addiction.
“A Whole New World…. of Anxiety ”could be read in the many advertisements for Librium, in which mainly young women with an armload of books, a short stadium coat and on their way to university, were the focus. It seemed as if Valium was the new panacea for the intellectual. "The new student may be struck by a sense of lost identity in a strange environment ... Her newly sparked intellectual curiosity may make her more sensitive to a world that is changing at an unprecedented rate."
The Birth of Valium
The next step was to develop something better and faster and with fewer side effects than Librium. Roche chemist Leo Sternbach, who had originally stumbled upon Librium, went back to the lab and in turn developed Diazepam (the generic version of Valium). He tested the sedative on Roche staff. Executives noted that the drug made them significantly less annoying.
If we look back now, we can say that Librium has been a good learning experience, teaching Roche how it could encourage doctors to prescribe more psychoactive drugs for healthy patients who just needed something to calm themselves down. By the time Valium arrived, Roche was ready to dominate the field. In 1974, the Dutch submitted nearly 60 million in prescriptions for Valium. However, the medically approved pill that people took to become calm and calmer led to a strange situation: it made people wonder what 'normal' actually was.
At the same time that Valium became famous and was in everyone's medicine box or purse, it also became famous for ruining lives. Elizabeth Taylor said she was addicted to Valium and whiskey, especially Jack Daniels's. Tammy Faye Bakker said she was addicted to Valium and nasal spray. The combination that killed Elvis Presley was Valium with an assortment of other prescription drugs.
Medicines and the new “normal”
Almost 50 years after Valium was introduced and hailed in the market, we apparently haven't learned any lessons yet. The generation of aging baby boomers now generally turn to antidepressants such as Prozac, Wellbutrin, Celexa, Paxil and Zoloft. And for the new generation, the preferred medication often consists of Ritalin en Modafinil.
If the Dutch don't feel well, they are still more likely to turn to anti-anxiety drugs. Valium's leading successor, Xanax, sells more than any other psychiatric drug on the market (48,7 million prescriptions last year). And Valium is still doing well too. In 2018, 14,7 million prescriptions were issued.
With Roche closing its New Jersey headquarters, it plans to establish a smaller research facility in Manhattan by the end of 2018. New York city officials hope to establish it as the mecca of biotechnology. The transition of the company reminds us of a phenomenon that has become so common that we no longer perceive it as strange: through the use of benzodiazepines, making an artificially induced situation seem normal in which no one questions any more.