Blockbusters and controlled substances: Miltown, Quaalude, and consumer demand for drugs in postwar America

Stud Hist Philos Biol Biomed Sci. 2011 Dec;42(4):415-26. doi: 10.1016/j.shpsc.2011.05.005. Epub 2011 Jun 17.


In 1955 Carter Products launched its new tranquilizer Miltown with a huge marketing blitz; Miltown soon became one of America's earliest "blockbuster" celebrity drugs. In 1981, federal agents shut down a network of "stress clinics" and arrested the owners, medical staff, and other personnel for illegally trafficking in the sedative Quaalude; Quaalude soon became a "Schedule I Controlled Substance." Both of these stories are familiar, indeed archetypal, moments from America's postwar medical system. As the Miltown example reminds us, this fundamentally commercial system was built on the creation and courting of consumer demand for medical products and services, particularly drugs. As the Quaalude example shows, however, this system also incorporated tools for reining in excessive consumer demand. Together the two episodes affirm an enduring irony of the American medical system: the need for regulatory campaigns to tame lively markets for drugs that had become popular, in part, because of advertising campaigns. This article uses the Miltown and Quaalude sagas to explore the issue of consumer demand for prescription medicines, arguing that efforts to stoke or quash that demand have shaped (and linked) America's medical system and its drug control regimes.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Ambulatory Care Facilities / history
  • Ambulatory Care Facilities / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Drug Industry / ethics
  • Drug Industry / history*
  • Drug Industry / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Health Services Needs and Demand / history*
  • Health Services Needs and Demand / legislation & jurisprudence
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Hypnotics and Sedatives / history*
  • Legislation, Drug*
  • Marketing / history*
  • Marketing / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Meprobamate / history*
  • Methaqualone / history*
  • Prescription Drugs / history
  • Stress, Psychological / drug therapy
  • Stress, Psychological / history
  • United States


  • Hypnotics and Sedatives
  • Prescription Drugs
  • Methaqualone
  • Meprobamate