06/03/2008 02:26 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Mommy, Can I Have a Yummy Blue Pill?

Pharmaceutical companies are great about turning out prescription medications with hip designer colors like deep blue, lavender, brightly colored red, and let's not forget 'the purple pill' (Nexium, for those of you without a TV). Those lovely colors make us say 'Yummy!' and increase our desire to wolf them down as fast as possible.

In our culture, gobbling down a prescription pill has become synonymous with 'make me feel better right now', and when we don't have others in our lives that are willing or able to do that for us, we take the next best option, i.e. the yummy pill. And, of course, when we have the financial means to pay for doctors to give us that feel-better-now yummy we feel entitled to it.

That is why my interest was peaked by a story this week about a woman who started a company to make pills for kids that were really placebos. She made a sugar pill and came up with a name for it that was "placebo" spelled backward, i.e. "obecalb" (damn fine, woman! Where were you when I wrote my blog "Where Do They Come Up With All Those Goofy Names for Pharmaceuticals" anyway? And btw, don't they call that Pig Latin? Or was it talking in the language of the devil?).

Jennifer Buettner started Efficacy Brands to sell Obecalb for $5.95 for a bottle of 50. She says that as parents we'll "know when they're necessary". And since she isn't promoting them for any specific medical condition she can market them as supplements which aren't subject to regulation by the FDA.

Thanks Senator Orin Hatch (R-Utah)!

All this reminds me of an online debate about an article called The Emperor's New Drugs on how antidepressants don't work as well as people think they do (a 2 point bump over placebo on a 56 point scale -- this was over ten years ago, before the NYT discovered that the hype over antidepressants was overblown). A psychiatrist and expert in psychopharmacology from the University of Pennsylvania, Michael Thase MD, commented something to the effect that antidepressant efficacy isn't so great, but it is at least ten times better than statins...

So true!

...and we can't give people placebos anyway.

Not true! Thanks to Jennifer.

But wait! Could there be a downside to Obecalb?

David Spiegel, a psychiatrist who studies placebos at the Stanford School of Medicine, says
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."

As discussed on,
all kids really want is a kiss to make it feel better. A lot of the discussion there is about why it came to this? But is Obecalb really any different than Erbitux, the drug for lung cancer that extends people's lives by five weeks?

The Wall Street Journal and the business section of NYT have already weighed in on Erbitux.

I wonder what they think about obecalb?

Doug Bremner MD is author of Before You Take That Pill