Pain wins over pills

April 10, 2006 | By Misty Harris

From crash diets and music downloads to digital pictures and text messaging, instant gratification is the religion of choice for Generation Y. But when it comes to over-the-counter (OTC) medication, the promise of fast pain-relief is a harder pill for them to swallow.

In a survey of young Canadians ages 18 to 29, nearly 60 per cent of respondents say they’re more likely to ignore a headache than to treat it. More than half (53 per cent) say they’re not comfortable using medication at all, while three in four (73 per cent) claim their pain isn’t bad enough to warrant action.

Experts say the findings of the survey conducted by Leger Marketing could give Canada’s $1.7 billion OTC drug industry a headache of its own.

“These are kids who have been tattooed, pierced—a lot of them have done illicit drugs. So in some ways, taking an Aspirin to remove the trappings of a headache is nonsensical,” says Michael Atkinson, a sociologist specializing in drug consumption and youth culture. “It’s like a bubblegum kind of drug to them.”

The survey also shows that more than half of young Canadians are using drug-free approaches to healing.

According to the nationwide survey of 535 Gen Y’ers, 54 per cent choose additional sleep, 52 per cent drink more water, and 21 per cent opt for relaxation techniques to ease their pain.

“They’ve grown up in a time where we’ve had moral panic after moral panic about drug consumption,” says Atkinson, an assistant professor at McMaster University in Hamilton. “They’re nervous, in some ways, so what they tend to explore are alternative therapies.”

Neil Howe, a leading authority on generational divergence, says the study puts the pressure on the OTC drug industry to inform people in their late teens and early twenties about the benefits of their products.

“You have a situation where a lot of these young people aren’t accustomed to taking over-the-counter drugs,” says Howe, demographer and co-author of Millennials in Pop Culture.

“Although they’re by far the most medicated generation in history in terms of prescription drugs, they’ve actually had a harder time (as teenagers) getting access to non-prescription drugs. To get one tablet of Aspirin into a classroom practically takes a federal edict.”

Howe notes that Gen Y’ers in their mid- to late-20s represent a different marketing challenge, if only because their childhoods were less protected than their younger counterparts.

“For them, going without drugs is a sign of toughness, of pushing through the pain,” he explains. “One of the big things with (the older half of Gen Y) is not admitting that they’re vulnerable.”

The survey, conducted for Tylenol, had a margin of error of 4.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.