|Apr. 11, 2004. 01:00 AM|
Healing corrupted by practices of Big Pharma|
the birth of my first child this month, I started thinking a
lot about drugs. Not the illicit ones, as one might expect,
but the licit drugs supposedly sustaining the health of our
nation. Having a baby means having a relationship with the
health care system, and I don't necessarily like what I see.
For the most part, our doctors and nurses provide exemplary
service, but in many instances they are also silent
co-conspirators in the shady business of pharmaceutically
Just as the pursuit of justice has been corrupted by
the pursuit of money, the art and science of healing has been
corrupted by the aggressive cost-recovery practices of
multi-national pharmaceutical companies. Big Pharma has
recently taken quite a beating in the media and has responded
with sappy TV spots applauding themselves for the vast sums
they spend on research and development.
Certainly, lives have been saved and suffering
alleviated by their slow and painstaking development of
chemical compounds. And certainly these philanthropic
companies have made a good buck fighting sickness. The real
question is whether we have achieved better living through
Thinking about the world of licit drugs led me to the
concept of iatrogenic disease — an illness precipitated by
medical intervention. Iatrogenic illness includes medical
errors and adverse drug reactions and American studies
demonstrate that iatrogenic disease is the third leading cause
of death behind heart disease and cancer.
In Canada, studies show 25 per cent of patients who
seek medical treatment end up suffering from another illness
brought about by medical or drug error. It has also been
reported that, in Canada, the cost of inappropriate
prescriptions exceeds $2 billion. Doctors cannot be held to
unattainable standards of perfection, but why are there so
many adverse drug reactions when drug companies spend billions
to test these new medications ?
As pharmaceutical sales in the world market approach
the trillion-dollar level, the media have uncovered stories of
doctors being bullied into publishing results supportive of a
drug's approval and of doctors being bribed to prescribe new
The drug approval process in Canada is rigorous. If
pharmaceutical companies need to bring a drug to market
quickly to offset enormous research expenditures, they may
need to take ethical shortcuts to enter the market.
Health Canada has now issued a warning regarding
pediatric use of antidepressants, but few people knew that
drug manufacturers tried to suppress test results showing that
certain antidepressants, including Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil,
were less effective than a placebo in many cases. With 3
million Canadian children taking antidepressants, the
aggressive marketing practices of the pharmaceutical industry
cannot be dismissed as merely an over-zealous business
Big Pharma is in the business of sickness and it's in
their best interest to maintain a horde of sick people as
consumers. When medicine is driven by business objectives, the
healing perspective gets skewed. For example, painfully shy
people are no longer simple introverts, but suffer "social
anxiety disorder." Conveniently, Zoloft is available to cast
out the demons of shyness.
So many lies are told when it comes to control over our
bodies. Big business distorts licit drug development and
politics distorts illicit drug designations. Last week, U.S.
and Canadian police shut down a large ecstasy distribution
ring. Ontario's acting chief coroner said ecstasy is a
dangerous drug and "someone can die from just one dose".
Although far more people die from taking licit drugs, it is in
the interest of politics to demonize any drug not found in the
I am not advocating the use of ecstasy. In fact, I
think it is foolhardy for anyone to take synthetic chemicals
produced by hairy bikers or deluded amateur chemists.
Nonetheless, research scientists and doctors are more than
willing to make definitive statements about illicit drug
dangers despite the absence of sound empirical evidence.
In 2002, a report that single-time ecstasy use caused
permanent neurological damage, inexorably leading to
Parkinson's disease, made front-page news. Quietly, a year
later,, the scientists had to issue a retraction when it was
discovered the neurologically damaged lab rats were actually
given another drug mislabeled as ecstasy.
North Americans have a huge appetite for legal and
illegal drugs. The pharmaceutical industry should be required
to develop an effective suppressant for this bad habit, but
reducing licit drug dependencies would be bad business. We
know little about what we are putting into our bodies and the
interests of business and politics have regrettably added to
We must reclaim control over our bodies and protect our
children from developing drug dependencies. Instead of pushing
little kids to master fractions, we should be teaching them
about the body and basic preventive medicine. Only by learning
how to stay healthy can a young person achieve a better life
Alan Young is a law professor, criminal lawyer
and author of Justice Defiled: Perverts, Potheads, Serial
Killers & Lawyers (Key Porter).
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