Monday, August 10, 2009

Parental Deception that Goes too Far (Marin IJ)

History is ripe with foolish medical therapies. Bloodletting, mesmerism, and “colonic irrigation” enemas are just a few of the well-intentioned but potentially harmful treatments that have lost both favor and credibility. Unfortunately, new ones are always there to take their place. Take, for instance, a product launched last year named Obecalp – a pill designed to deceive children. Now, as the father of an opinionated four-year-old, I know that creativity is a crucial part of parenting. When my daughter squawks at the idea of walking to pre-school, I ask her to be Dora the Explorer on an important mission. Or, if the living room floor is completely covered with crayons and Groovy Girls, I tell her about the “messy monster,” who absconds with toys that are not neatly put away. Fibbing to children is an ancient technique perfected by generations of parents who have explained “There is no more ice cream,” “Yes, sweetie, someday you can have a pony,” and “Of course Santa Claus can fit down the chimney.” But while I am not above the occasional white lie that prevents an 8.0 trembler on the meltdown scale, I (and many others) draw the line at Obecalp. Last May, the New York Times reported that a chewable, cherry-flavored dextrose (sugar) tablet would be marketed to parents as a placebo treatment for children. A placebo is an inactive drug that works based on a patient's belief that it will make him or her better and Obecalp, as you may have noticed, is the word “placebo” spelled backwards. The idea behind Obecalp was to market a chemically inert alternative to painkillers such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) and Motrin (ibuprofen). Bottles of 50 tablets were to sell for $5.95 and because they didn’t contain active ingredients they could be sold as over-the-counter dietary supplements. The concept, according to inventor and mother of three, Jennifer Buettner, was to design a pill with “the texture and taste of actual medicine so it will trick kids into thinking that they’re taking something. Then, their brain takes over, and they say, ‘Oh, I feel better.’” A useful trick, perhaps, and with a website tagline of “Invented by a Mommy!” some financier must have thought Obecalp was going to be a sure bestseller. Actually, it was just a bad idea. Even in a highly medicated society like ours, a fake drug for children was a line most parents were not willing to cross. Now, let’s be clear; the placebo effect does exist and it can be powerful. There are certain situations where, after parents and a physician discuss it, a trial of placebo treatment makes sense. For example, some pediatricians recommend that the parents of a child with ADHD try a week or two of placebo before starting a potentially harmful medication like Ritalin. But, we already live in a pill-for-every-problem culture. Remember when many obese Americans opted for Fen-phen rather than diet modification and exercise? Some of them ended up with pulmonary hypertension rather than skinny jeans. By encouraging our children to a pop an Obecalp for every sniffly nose, tickly throat, or bruised ego, we would be reinforcing this mindset. And even worse, we would be substituting a pill for parental creativity and attention. When I was a boy, my mother turned me into a vegetable and fruit-chopping machine through a simple technique – extreme flattery. I was led to believe that I, and only I, was capable of delicately slicing pineapple. If we left it to someone else, our fruit salad might not make it to the table. When I finally realized that I’d been duped for years, I was somewhat perturbed, but mainly impressed – my mother had found an effective way to keep me out of trouble and save herself some time. The lesson was duly noted for later use. A year later, the Obecalp website is still active, but the product has not found its way to the local drug store. My inquiries to the “Invented by a Mommy!” e-mail address were met with cyber silence. Thank goodness. The idea of substituting a sugar pill for ingenuity wasn’t going to do our children any good in the long run. Just thinking about it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.