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Apr. 11, 2004. 01:00 AM
Healing corrupted by practices of Big Pharma


With 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 driven medicine.

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 chemistry.

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 drugs.

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 strategy.

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 conventional pharmacopeia.

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 the confusion.

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 without chemistry.

Alan Young is a law professor, criminal lawyer and author of Justice Defiled: Perverts, Potheads, Serial Killers & Lawyers (Key Porter).

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