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Synthesis/Regeneration 48   (Winter 2008)

Taking Down Big Pharma:
Beyond Progressive Malpractice

by Ronnie Cummins

Progressive Malpractice (noun), ignoring the fundamental economic and political roots of a crisis; taking a single-issue, band-aid approach in hopes of gaining mainstream support.

Libertarian Narcissism (noun), promoting individual solutions for collective problems; believing that market pressure alone can bring out-of-control corporations under control; ignoring the plight of the poor; pretending major problems can be solved without serious grassroots organizing and government reform.

Welcome to Sicko Nation: Swimming in a toxic soup of 100,000 synthetic chemicals — carcinogens, neurotoxins, hormone disruptors, immune suppressors, excitotoxins ... Worn down by corporate junk food, tainted consumer products, air and water pollution, incessant advertising, infectious disease, synthetic drugs, cigarette smoke, and alcohol. Zapped 24/7 with electromagnetic radiation. Stressed out by poverty and economic insecurity, fear of crime, rampant consumerism, and a murderous work pace. A growing corps of Americans is chronically sick and dispirited.

Aiding and abetting this massive assault, mainstream medical practitioners, the corporate media, and elected public officials ignore or cover up the toxic roots of Sicko Nation. Money-grubbing politicians offer band-aid solutions, and then proceed to collect their rewards in the form of campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry and HMOs (Health Maintenance Organizations). Big Pharma spends more on lobbying — $855 million between 1998 and 2006 — than any other industry in the United States, according to the Center for Public Integrity. In addition Big Pharma feeds the insatiable appetite of the mainstream media, spending more than $70 billion dollars a year on advertising. Last but not least, US doctors make more money than any other medical practitioners in the world, though they typically pay a steep price in terms of a 70-hour workweek, skyrocketing malpractice insurance, and indentured servitude to HMOs and giant hospitals. The Emperor of ill health has no clothes, but very few of our so-called leaders are talking seriously about what to do about it.

A growing corps of Americans is chronically sick and dispirited.

American consumers and employers will spend over two trillion dollars this year on health insurance, pharmaceutical drugs, and medical bills, yet we will remain — mentally and physically — among the unhealthiest people on Earth. Forty-eight percent of US men and 38% of women can now look forward to getting cancer. Eight percent of our children suffer from serious food allergies, 17% are diagnosed with learning or behavior disabilities, and a third of low-income preschool kids are already overweight or obese. Heart disease, diabetes, mental illness, cancer, and obesity are spiraling out of control among all sectors of the population.

The fundamental causes of most of our chronic health problems are not genetic or inherited, but rather derive from couch potato/commuter lifestyles; over consumption of highly processed, high-cholesterol, nutritionally deficient, and contaminated industrialized foods; and an increasingly polluted, stressful, and toxic environment. These, of course, are problems that even the most expensive prescription drugs and high-tech medical procedures cannot cure. Unfortunately the worst is yet to come. Within eight years, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, America’s health care costs will soar to $4.1 trillion annually, bankrupting Medicare and millions of American families and businesses. Unless we quickly change our priorities from “maintaining” our Sicko Nation to universally preventing disease and promoting overall wellness — including cleaning up our food supply and environment — America’s health crisis will become terminal. This means we must put an end to tunnel vision and single-issue health care politics and roll up our sleeves to take on the real culprits: out-of-control corporations, politicians, and technology.

Big Pharma spends more on lobbying… than any other industry in the United States…

With millions of Americans mentally or physically debilitated, permanently hooked on the world’s most expensive prescription drugs, Big Pharma, HMOs, and insurance tycoons rake in billions. According to Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, in 2002:

The combined profits for the 10 drug companies in the Fortune 500 ($35.9 billion) were more than the profits for all the other 490 businesses put together ($33.7 billion) ... Over the past two decades the pharmaceutical industry has [become] a marketing machine to sell drugs of dubious benefit, [using] its wealth and power to co-opt every institution that might stand in its way, including the US Congress, the FDA, academic medical centers, and the medical profession itself.

The critics of corporate health care and Big Pharma must stop quibbling, close ranks, and mobilize a massive united front of the progressive single-payer health care movement, representing the 100 million Americans with no or inadequate health insurance, reinforced by an army of radicals and libertarians — the 50 million alternative health consumers who have rejected Big Pharma’s trillion-dollar drug and heath maintenance scam altogether.

The toxic side effects of Sicko Nation are poisoning the body politic. With much of the population fixated on their health and psychological problems, worried about losing their jobs or their health coverage, doped up on prescription drugs or alcohol, and, for many, compensating for their alienating jobs with rampant consumerism, politicians and corporations run amuck. National and global mega-crises — climate change, peak oil, and endless war — steadily grow worse. Outgunned and out-maneuvered, public interest organizations have defensively barricaded themselves in their respective single-issue silos — competing rather than cooperating, seldom if ever making the crucial links between food, environment, lifestyle, work, tax policy, military spending, and health.

We need universal, publicly funded health care because millions of sick and disadvantaged Americans are suffering and dying. We need universal health care because Big Pharma, HMOs, and insurance companies are gouging consumers for two trillion dollars a year, profitably “maintaining” their illnesses rather than curing them, steadily moving the nation along a trajectory that, combined with out-of-control military spending and corporate tax evasion, will eventually bankrupt the economy.

In every industrialized country in the world, except for the United States, medical care is considered a basic human right, alongside food and shelter, which a civilized society must provide for all. Health care reform in the US must be coupled with price controls on drugs and medical costs, as well as tax reform, whereby the corporations and the wealthy are forced to pay their fair share of federal taxes.

The cure: Disease prevention and complementary medicine

But government-funded universal health care (exemplified by John Conyers’ currently stalled bill in the House, HR 676, “Non-Profit Medicare for All”) is not enough. Simply giving everyone access to Big Pharma’s overpriced drugs, and corporate hospitals’ profit-at-any-cost tests and treatment will result in little more than soaring health care costs, with uninsured and insured alike remaining sick or becoming even sicker.

…evidence is mounting that Americans’ daily exposure to 100,000 different synthetic chemicals… is undermining our health…

As 50 million organic consumers and alternative health consumers can attest, complementary and preventive medicine, utilizing natural herbs, minerals, food based supplements, organic whole foods, lifestyle changes, and holistic healing practices, is safe, affordable and effective. Preventive health care, natural medicine, and proper nutrition have been linked to a broad range of health and social benefits, including disease reduction, increased academic performance, and lower health care costs. The $350 billion in savings that will occur by eliminating the profit motive and moving to a single-payer system will allow us to insure and promote the health and wellness of our entire population.

In addition, scientific evidence is mounting that Americans’ daily exposure to 100,000 different synthetic chemicals (fewer than 10% of which have ever been safety-tested) in our food, water, medicines, body care products, cosmetics, toys, home environments, etc., is undermining our health and fueling an epidemic of debilitating and deadly diseases including cancer, heart disease, asthma, allergies, obesity, and chemical sensitivities.

Of course we still need conventional medicine and practitioners: hospitals, diagnostic tests, surgeons, and specialists, as well as preventive and holistic healers. I am a vocal advocate for organic food and integrative medicine, but if I suffer a heart attack, break my leg, or get shot in an anti-war demonstration, I want to be taken to a well-equipped and staffed hospital, not to a health food store or my local acupuncturist. But after my hospital treatment I don’t want to become a prescription drug junky or be driven into bankruptcy court by a $100,000+ hospital bill.

To restore public health and bring Big Pharma to heel will require, as a minimum first step, that we organize a broad united front between the nation's 100 million supporters of single-payer health insurance (many of whom have an outdated or conservative belief system regarding the relative effectiveness of conventional versus alternative medicine), and the more radical, often libertarian, 50 million alternative health consumers and practitioners who typically hate Big Pharma and the entire medical industrial complex with a passion.

This united front will require us to move beyond current “progressive malpractice,” whereby single-payer health care activists work in isolation from alternative health consumers, often dismissing complementary medicine and its advocates as snake oil salesmen. “Libertarian narcissism” is just as counter-productive: alternative health enthusiasts basically say “to hell with all government programs” and “socialized medicine,” in effect ignoring the plight of 50 million poor and low-income Americans who have little or no access to healthy food, nutrition and health information, or access to quality health care. Beyond uniting liberal, radical, and libertarian critics of Big Pharma and the medical industrial complex, the entire activist rainbow, including environmentalists, trade unionists, tax reformers, peace activists, and other progressives, will have work hand in hand to treat and cure our profoundly sick nation.

Forty-seven million Americans currently have no health insurance, while 50 million more of us are woefully underinsured. Unfortunately, being able to afford conventional health insurance yourself or getting it through your employer may not help you very much, since Big Pharma and profit-obsessed HMOs and hospitals are focused mainly on selling you overpriced (often hazardous) prescription drugs ($300 billion a year), running expensive tests, and basically keeping you on permanent health maintenance rather than preventing and/or curing our most common ailments such as cancer, hypertension, heart disease, lung problems, diabetes, obesity, stroke, and mental illness. Rampant medical malpractice and the failure of conventional medicine to address our serious ailments is the primary reason that 50 million alternative health consumers are taking matters into their own hands and paying $30 billion dollars a year out of their own pockets for complementary medical supplements and practitioners.

… side effects from prescription drugs are now the fourth leading cause of death in the US.

Even worse than just expensively maintaining — rather than curing — chronic illnesses, the collateral damage of Big Pharma’s business as usual can only be described as catastrophic. As an AMA (American Medical Association) publication admitted a decade ago, drug related problems “kill ...198,815 people, put 8.8 million in hospitals, and account for up to 28% of hospital admissions.” Over the past decade this carnage has increased. Newsweek magazine, among others, has reported that side effects from prescription drugs are now the fourth leading cause of death in the US. As medical analyst Gary Null warns:

A definitive review and close reading of medical peer-review journals, and government health statistics shows that ... the number of people having in-hospital, adverse drug reactions (ADR) to prescribed medicine is 2.2 million ... the number of unnecessary antibiotics prescribed annually for viral infections is 20 million ... The number of unnecessary medical and surgical procedures performed annually is 7.5 million. The number of people exposed to unnecessary hospitalization annually is 8.9 million.

Can we heal the perennial split between proponents of conventional medicine and the alternative health consumer movement?

The problem is clear. The solution is obvious. The trillion-dollar life or death question is whether we can overcome our sectarian divisions and mobilize the grassroots power of the 150 million Americans who are sick and tired of living in a Sicko Nation. Can we heal the perennial split between proponents of conventional medicine and the alternative health consumer movement? Can progressives and libertarians reach out to the economically disadvantaged and stressed-out majority to create a massive grassroots pressure that will literally force the politicians to “do the right thing?”

The time for action is now. To begin the long overdue process of “pressing the politicians,” please join thousands of other consumers and taxpayers and go to http://www.grassrootsnetroots.org where you can click a button to send a comprehensive survey to your state and federal elected public officials. Once you’ve “pressed the politicians,” an on-line organizer from the Grassroots Netroots Alliance will contact you.

Ronnie Cummins is director of the Organic Consumers Alliance http://www.organicconsumers.org/. He can be reached at ronnie@organicconsumers.org

[18 dec 08]

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