America's all-time favorite pill isn't for birth control, according to historian Andrea Tone. It's a potent little tranquilizer called Miltown, after the New Jersey hamlet where it was born in 1955. The original "mother's little helper" set off a consumer frenzy that emptied drugstores and launched the era of psychiatric cure-alls. But it also raised a perennial question: do we actually need these drugs, or does Big Pharma push them on us? In "The Age of Anxiety," the McGill University professor pans for answers, and finds the blame lies largely with us.
The Idea: The responsibility for our pill-popping culture is often placed on overhyped medications and harried doctors all too willing to write prescriptions. But at least in the case of anti-anxiety drugs, Tone argues, the demand was patient-driven. Miltown, she writes, "arrived in a society preoccupied with anxiety and committed to its containment."
The Evidence: Despite little marketing, Miltown became the fastest-selling drug in U.S. history, inspiring cocktails, jewelry—even an Oscarnight shout- out in 1956, when host Jerry Lewis cracked that nominees who didn't win an award could enjoy a buttered Miltown in the lobby.
The Conclusion: A backlash against medicating everyday life has cooled the market for anti-anxiety drugs. But, according to Tone, that just means more people may suffer in silence. While drugs are not always the answer, fear of them is no better.