Coming right after Harvard's recent cheating scandal, the staff at its student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, may be a little red in the face today after approving an ad for a pill that promises to improve brain function without a prescription.
The ad was quickly yanked on Monday, but not before it caught the attention of Jezebel.com, which skewered the paper for sponsoring a supplement that purports to give students a chemically-enhanced leg up on the competition.
The ad was hawking ADDTabz, a supplement promoted as a non-prescription alternative to the ADHD drug Adderall. Increasingly, college students are misappropriating this sort of good-grade pill without a prescription and without a real medical need.
It's not hard to see why: Gentech Pharmaceutical, the Florida-based distributor of ADDTabz, says on its website the supplement "improves memory and learning," "enhances cognitive ability," "improves total brain function" and "reduces anxiety and improves mood." Those could be pretty tempting claims to a student looking for an edge in the pressure cooker of college.
It's a little unclear how ADDTabz differs from the real deal. Prescription Adderall is a potentially addictive amphetamine which lists insomnia, changes in appetite and high blood pressure among its most common side effects. Unless you have a legit prescription to use it as a treatment for ADHD or another attention disorder, possession is illegal.
On the Gentech website, ADDTabz is described as "NOT an herbal supplement but rather a designer non-prescription pharmaceutical analog providing superior results without the side effects of its chemical cousin's amphetamine spectrum." Gentech did not respond to a request for comment.
Harvard Crimson president Ben Samuels said ads for the paper are brokered by a third party or direct sales. He said he's not sure how this one was posted, but it wasn't up for very long.
"There's been little reaction from the student community," he said, adding that the newspaper has run several stories about Adderall abuse on Harvard's campus.
Not everyone is giving the paper a pass. "It's irresponsible of the Crimson to publish such an ad when it should be encouraging students to stand on their own two feet," said Dr. Marcia Angella, a senior lecturer in the department of social medicine at Harvard. "It's part of a culture to cut corners and this promotes another way to do it."
According to University of Kentucky research, the use of "smart pills" is rampant. Researchers found more than 30 percent of college students have taken stimulant drugs without a prescription. Most buy from friends with legitimate prescriptions or they fake attention disorder symptoms to score their own.
But is it cheating? Some say taking the attention-focusing pills is the brain equivalent of taking steroids to enhance physical performance, giving users an unfair advantage over non-users. At the very least, it probably violates the honor code of most academic institutions.
Angella said she views it as more of a shortcut. "Drugs help you stay awake longer but you could still be ignorant," she said. "You still have to learn for yourself."