Drug Me Before I Shop Again!

September 09, 1994|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The threat has apparently gone unnoticed by the Council of Economic Advisers and other guardians of the nation's economy. But, before precious time is lost, let it be noted that compulsive shopping has been officially certified as a distinct malady in the latest edition of the big directory of psychiatric disorders.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual, holy guide for major sects of the mental-health profession, the irresistible urge to shop is treatable with various prescription drugs. The perception of shopping as a disease is still in an early stage. But once the word gets around, this national pastime could become tainted and stigmatized, and over-the-counter treatments would surely become available. ''Shopper'' could become a pejorative.

Not at all addressed by the shrink manual is the awesome issue of whether this misguided medical intrusion should be tolerated by a society whose economic spirits rise and fall with the monthly retail sales figures. When sales are down, the stock market slumps. And, as though responding to a natural calamity, the White House offers explanations concerning seasonal variations, the peculiarities of inventories, and the vagaries of ''consumer confidence.'' On television, unrecognized but authoritative-sounding experts interpret the meaning of the latest figures on retail sales.

The government's scorekeepers are professionally neutral about retail sales, just reporting the numbers as they find them. But when the commentators take over, a universal hope comes through, namely, that shoppers will get out there and perform their patriotic duty -- buying.

The only deviation from this theme occurs when the economic authorities deplore America's saving rate, which is low by international standards. The reason, of course, is that shoppers spend it away, instead of tucking their money in the bank.

Like retriever hounds, who fetch instinctively, shrinks are only obeying nature's command when they spot a compulsion and dish up a treatment. But in taking on shopping, they are in direct violation of the fundamental law of medicine -- do no harm. Sure, they might drug some free-spending patient into adopting the asceticism of Mother Teresa, and thereby spare an individual and perhaps a family from financial ruin. But the costs to society in general would far exceed the benefits of their little therapeutic triumph.

The epidemiologists are yet to report on the incidence of compulsive shoppers in the general population. But conditions are ripe for an epidemic. Nothing in American life is quite as easy as shopping. And it keeps getting easier. A booming catalog industry and shopping channels on television display the goods in the home setting, with easy purchase via toll-free numbers and credit-card payment. Interactive cable is on the way to eliminating the need to phone in an order. Shoppers can recline and buy, simply by punching buttons -- a convenience that is raising doubts about the future of conventional retailing.

For those who venture out, super malls beckon with free parking and a strategic assemblage of stores, decor and music to enliven the spirit of acquisition. In all settings, easy credit is available, and, increasingly, shoppers can collect frequent-buyer points -- and thus acquire more goods.

The wonder of it all isn't that some people succumb to compulsive-buying disorder. After all, no one is ever far from clever appeals to buy, whether the goods are needed or not. The amazing thing is that restraint is still evident in the consumer population, even as the clamor rises for shoppers to perform their duty.

But there may be an ominous omen in the fact that psychiatry has taken note of shopping. As the pressures to buy become more intense, we can expect the cry of the overwhelmed consumer: Drug me before I shop again.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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