Racialization of drugs mobilizes prior conceptions of identity

October 23, 2008

Atlanta, GA - October 23, 2008 - If we want to fully understand the allure of pharmaceuticals, we need to look beyond both medical efficacy and profit motives. A new study in the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics shows that when we use claims about drugs in arguments about racial identity, the meaning of both the pharmaceuticals and of race remain unsettled.

Anne Pollock, Ph.D. of the Georgia Institute of Technology tracks the intersection of race and a particular generic drug, thiazide. Not focusing on marketing and efficacy but rather drawing on social theory, the article describes and analyzes an encounter at an African American Studies Colloquium that involved economist Roland Fryer and literary theorist Henry Louis Gates, Jr. who use thiazide as a nexus through which to talk about ideologies of race. The identification between race and thiazide are unstable, diverse, and ambiguous, even among two African American Harvard professors.

Pollock then contextualizes that encounter in larger debates around race and thiazide to further show the complicated nature of pharmaceutical meaning making. Although pharmaceuticals can seem to rely on scientific data and marketing for their power, they are, in fact, also subject to claims on many more levels.

On the one hand, thiazide has been called upon in a recent resurgence of an argument relating selection pressures in Atlantic slavery to cardiovascular disease in African Americans. This claim suggests the drug could be key to solving racial morbidity and mortality disparities.

At the same time, thiazide has been touted by the National Institutes of Health as the best antihypertensive medicine for everyone, especially Blacks.

The extent to which a drug is taken - or talked about - is related to commodity properties that exceed the physiological and economic. Links between race and pharmaceuticals can be both unstable and generative even when the drug in question is old and generic.

"Through analysis of this vignette among Harvard professors and some contextualization of the other debates in which thiazide is invoked, I have begun to show how even this generic old drug's meanings are multiple and still in motion," Pollock concludes.
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This study is published in the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics. Media wishing to receive a PDF of this article may contact journalnews@bos.blackwellpublishing.net.

Anne Pollock is affiliated with the Georgia Institute of Technology and can be reached for questions at apollock@gatech.edu.

A leading peer-reviewed journal for research at the intersection of law, health policy, ethics, and medicine, Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics is THE authoritative source for health law teachers, practitioners, policy makers, risk managers, and anyone involved with the safe, equitable, and ethical delivery and promotion of the public's health.

Wiley-Blackwell was formed in February 2007 as a result of the acquisition of Blackwell Publishing Ltd. by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., and its merger with Wiley's Scientific, Technical, and Medical business. Together, the companies have created a global publishing business with deep strength in every major academic and professional field. Wiley-Blackwell publishes approximately 1,400 scholarly peer-reviewed journals and an extensive collection of books with global appeal. For more information on Wiley-Blackwell, please visit www.wiley-blackwell.com or http://interscience.wiley.com.

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