Document Type

Book Review

Publication Date



The recent identification of a possible link between the long-term use of aspirin and a reduced incidence of colon and rectal cancer has directed renewed attention to a familiar household medication whose origins reach back to antiquity.

Competition from other painkillers had begun to cut deeply into the market once dominated by aspirin-based products when studies indicated the possibilities, first that the regular consumption of aspirin might prevent second heart attacks, and later that it might lower the risk of heart attacks in healthy individuals. If these two discoveries, as well as the new finding about colon and rectal cancers, hold up under further scientific scrutiny and gain acceptance within the medical and regulatory communities, the growth potential for the sale of medicines made from acetylsalicylic acid (the chemical name for aspirin) would be virtually unlimited.

This, therefore, is an auspicious moment for the publication of The Aspirin Wars, billed as an up-close look at the encounter between the world's best-known home remedy and the free-enterprise system. Science writer Charles C. Mann and economist Mark Plummer have pooled their talents in an ambitious effort to record the saga of the discovery of aspirin and its uses, as well as the no-holds-barred conflicts over the production and marketing of the popular painkiller and the medicines that might substitute for it. The story they tell turns out to be epic in scope. It spans three continents, involves a formidable mass of detail, and parades before the reader an array of characters who seem to outnumber the combined casts of Gone With the Wind and The Ten Commandments.

The Aspirin Wars is unusual in that it contains three books in one, and each has particular appeal for a different audience. The first presents a corporate history suitable for study in business schools. The second deals with legal issues and will be of special interest to attorneys, government regulators, and law students. The third is a fascinating chapter in the history of medicine. The three segments do not blend well into a coherent whole, which is one of the shortcomings of the book.

This review will consider each of the three sections of the book separately. It will devote critical attention to some of the legal and public policy issues suggested in parts two and three.

Publication Citation

47 Food & Drug L.J. 459-481 (1992) (reviewing Charles C. Mann & Mark Plummer, The Aspirin Wars: Money, Medicine, and 100 Years of Rampant Competition (1991))