"Just Advil": Harm reduction and identity construction in the consumption of over-the-counter medication for chronic pain

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23 Scopus citations


Direct-to-consumer marketing has sparked ongoing debate concerning whether ads empower consumers to be agents of their own care or shift greater control to the pharmaceutical industry. Ads for over-the-counter (OTC) medications in particular portend to offer simple, harmless solutions for meeting the demands of social life. Rather than join the longstanding debate between consumer agency and social control in pharmaceutical advertising, I approach self-medication with over-the-counter (OTC) analgesics using Harm Reduction as a framework. From this perspective, consumption of OTC analgesics by chronic pain sufferers is a means of seeking some level of relief while also avoiding the stigma associated with prescription pain medication. Qualitative methods are used to analyze data from two sources: (1) semi-structured qualitative interviews with 95 participants in a trial examining the effectiveness of Traditional Chinese Medicine for Temporomandibular Disorders (TMD) from 2006 to 2011 in Tucson, AZ and Portland, OR; and (2) print, online, and television advertisements for three major brands of OTC pain medication. Participants described their use of OTC medications as minimal, responsible, and justified by the severity of their pain. OTC medication advertising, while ostensibly ambiguous and targeting all forms of pain, effectively lends support to the consumption of these medications as part of the self-projects of chronic pain sufferers, allowing them to reconcile conflicting demands for pain relief while being stoic and maintaining a positive moral identity. Describing OTC medication as "just over-the-counter" or "not real pain medication," sufferers engage in ideological harm reduction, distinguishing themselves from "those people who like taking pain medication" while still seeking relief. Justifying one's use of OTC medication as minimal and "normal," regardless of intake, avoids association with the addictive potential of prescription pain medications and aligns the identity of the chronic pain sufferer with a culturally sanctioned identity as stoic bearer of pain.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)147-154
Number of pages8
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
StatePublished - Dec 1 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Chronic pain
  • Harm reduction
  • Over-the-counter medication
  • Pharmaceutical advertising
  • Stigma
  • USA

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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