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Thursday August 08, 2019
Miltown: a game-changing drug you've probably never heard of

One in six Americans takes a psychiatric medication. The number of Canadians who got at least one prescription for psychotropic drugs went up 54 per cent between 1983 and 2007. But to understand how Prozac and Zoloft became household words, you need to learn about Miltown.There's a good chance you've never heard of it - but at one time it took the United States by storm, and laid the foundation for the ways we treat anxiety today. Miltown's introduction into the market was initially underwhelming, selling just $7,500 dollars worth during the first month after its launch in May 1955. But by the end of that year, sales hit $2 million. Hollywood had discovered Miltown - and from then on, the pill became a cultural phenomenon.

"When Hollywood understands that there's this drug that isn't going to knock you out like barbiturates, but is going to ease your anxieties some, it's embraced in a way that I don't think any other drug had been embraced before, or has been ever since," said Tone.

Soon, it was a bona-fide cultural phenomenon, appearing in New Yorker cartoons and on greeting cards. At parties frequented by celebrities, the pills were passed around like peanuts. There were even "miltinis" - cocktails with Cold War-inspired names, that combined alcohol with the pills. Milton Berle, who was a giant star at the time, joked that he was so enamored with the stuff, he should change his name to Miltown Berle. It's estimated that by late 1956, one in 20 Americans had tried Miltown. If a drug could become so thoroughly ingrained in American life - how is it that so few people have heard about it today?

In a sense, the drug changed the marketplace so much, it set the terms of its own demise. Other pharmaceutical companies watched as the popularity of the drug exploded, and saw limitless commercial potential, triggering a feverish race to discover the next best thing. Benzodiazepines - which included Librium and Valium - soon came to dominate the tranquilizer market. By the early sixties, the era of Miltown mania was over. But according to Andrea Tone, none of the present day market for anti depressants and anti-anxiety medications would have been possible without Frank Berger's accidental discovery of Miltown.

​"It is the very first time that millions of Americans - and eventually doctors too - felt that it was okay to take a drug for every day ills, and in that sense it normalized the notion that people who didn't have serious illnesses, who are just riding the roller coaster of the vagaries of life could pop a pill, and there's nothing wrong with that," she said.

"That idea, which was new, and phenomenal, has been enduring."

CBC Radio Canada

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