In an ideal Lockian world, our government would be motivated solely by the desire to protect property and ensure liberty. Government organizations would execute their respective duties with only the public’s interest in mind. Unfortunately though, the nature of our economic system interferes with this. The best interest of the public is often silenced to the advantage of major corporations. The pursuit of capital has fostered a system where the very institutions that were designed to protect us, also protect the interests of these major corporations.
This is particularly relevant when it comes to our health. We’ve come to expect the government, via the FDA and USDA, to set the standard for safe and healthy products. We’ve placed such faith in the government’s ability to regulate our food and drugs that we often fail to take any personal responsibility. We assume that the government is better equipped to regulate what we put in our bodies than we are. This might hold some merit if government agencies worked solely to the benefit of the public, but these agencies have a variety of clients. They are obligated to fulfill the interest of not just the American people, but also famers, food manufacturers, and the pharmaceutical industry. The result of these conflicting interests is a citizenry whose health rests in the hands of profit driven industries. It is only by redefining our political expectations and regaining respect for our bodies that we will be able to reclaim our individual health, which will result in a healthy citizenry and a strong nation.
Healthcare is a business, and as with any business, its primary goal is to profit. Businesses do not profit if no one is in need of their services. The more people who are healthy, the less revenue the healthcare industry will receive. The healthcare industry does not want a healthy citizenry because they would go out of business. So instead of fixing the root of the problem, our entire system revolves around fixing the symptoms. By primarily dealing with symptoms, the industry guarantees the continued demand for their services.
The evidence for this is overwhelming. It is impossible to turn on the television and not see an ad for a new pill that promises to make you happier, healthier, and thinner. But be warned, this drug is not for everyone, including those with a family history of high blood pressure or strokes, as this drug may increase these risks in some users. Also keep in mind that rare, but serious side effects may occur. Of course, this is all explained as you see a man and his wife, walking down the beach laughing. The ad usually begins with a brief intro about, “if diet and lifestyle changes aren’t enough….” but then stops at that. Self-interest, as manifested in the pursuit of capital, drives our economy. As a result of this, we have a healthcare system that favors revenue generating solutions for those in charge. Diet and lifestyle changes don’t profit major corporations. Pills do. In recent years, there has been more of a push by health advocacy groups to educate consumers on healthy choices. But with a multibillion dollar budget, the pharmaceutical industry is not a force to be reckoned with.
The Vioxx scandal illustrates the degree to which the industry is willing to sacrifice public health for the sake of profit. In 2004, Merck, the producer of arthritis drug Vioxx, voluntarily withdrew the drug from the market after it was proven that the drug increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. This proof came in the form of 100,000 deaths, and 10,000 lawsuits. Investigations for the lawsuits revealed some disturbing information: Merck knew that the drug posed certain cardiovascular risks prior to its release, but chose not to disclose that information to the public. This was revealed by an internal memo that was found during investigations. Consumers felt betrayed, not just by Merck, but by the FDA’s failure to protect the public from this catastrophe.
We have put so much faith in the government’s role as regulator of our health, that we rarely question it. If a drug is passed by the FDA, we assume it’s safe and it would be in our best interest to take this drug. We assume that the government agencies responsible for overseeing the safety of these drugs have our best interest in mind. We don’t think about the billions spent by the industry on TV commercials and print media. Or the $12 billion dedicated to handing out samples and employing a sales force to influence doctors to promote specifically branded drugs. Nor do we consider the 1,200 lobbyists the industry employees, 40 of which are former members of Congress. We don’t consider that in 2009 the pharmaceutical and health products industry’s federal lobbying expenditures reached $266.8 million, outpacing all other business industries and special interests areas in 2009. Such enormous sums of money aren’t spent at disposal. The industry is willing to put out so much money because it expects to get it back through the sale of products. Products can only be sold once they’ve been approved by the FDA. The industry may have to buy their support, but it is support nonetheless.
When Vioxx was removed from the market, David Graham, Associate Director of Science and Medicine in the Office of Drug Safety, testified before the Senate about Vioxx’s safety concerns. At the end of his testimony, he asserted that the policies within the FDA were insufficient to protect the public from drugs which carry unacceptable risks, saying “I would argue that the FDA, as currently configured, is incapable of protecting America against another Vioxx. We are virtually defenseless.” Shortly after this testimony highly acclaimed health guru Gary Null sent his lead investigator and director of operations, Manette Loudon, to Washington, D.C. to interview Graham. The interview revealed disturbing facts about the internal workings of the FDA. The full interview is well worth reading and can be found here. But for the purposes of this paper, consider the following segment:
Loudon: On November 23, 2004 (during the) PBS Online News Hour Program, you were quoted as making the following statement: “I would argue that the FDA as currently configured is incapable of protecting America against another Vioxx. Simply put, FDA and the Center for Drug Evaluation Research (CDER) are broken.” Since you’ve made that statement, has anything changed within the FDA to fix what’s broken and, if not, how serious is the problem that we’re dealing with here?
Dr. Graham: Since November, when I appeared before the Senate Finance Committee and announced to the world that the FDA was incapable of protecting America from unsafe drugs or from another Vioxx, very little has changed on the surface and substantively nothing has changed.
Dr. Graham: The structural problems that exist within the FDA, where the people who approve the drugs are also the ones who oversee the post marketing regulation of the drug, remain unchanged. The people who approve a drug when they see that there is a safety problem with it are very reluctant to do anything about it because it will reflect badly on them. They continue to let the damage occur. America is just as at risk now as it was in November, as it was two years ago, and as it was five years ago.
Loudon: In that same PBS program, you were also quoted saying, “The organizational structure within the CDER is currently geared towards the review and approval of new drugs. When a serious safety issue arises at post marketing, the immediate reaction is almost always one of denial, rejection and heat. They approved the drugs, so there can’t possibly be anything wrong with it. This is an inherent conflict of interest.”
Based on what you’re saying it appears that the FDA is responsible for protecting the interests of pharmaceutical companies and not the American people. Do you believe the FDA can protect the public from dangerous drugs?
Dr. Graham: As currently configured, the FDA is not able to adequately protect the American public. It’s more interested in protecting the interests of industry. It views industry as its client, and the client is someone whose interest you represent. Unfortunately, that is the way the FDA is currently structured.
Within the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, about 80 percent of the resources are geared towards the approval of new drugs and 20 percent is for everything else. Drug safety is about 5 percent. The “gorilla in the living room” is new drugs and approval. Congress has not only created that structure, they have also worsened that structure through the PDUFA, the Prescription Drug User Fee Act, by which drug companies pay money to the FDA so they will review and approve its drug. So you have that conflict as well.”
As stated by Graham, the FDA is “more interested in protecting the interests of the industry. It views industry as its client, and the client is someone whose interest you represent.” This relationship is intensified by the dual-roles of many members of the FDA. Ten of the 32 FDA drug advisers whose total votes favored the controversial painkillers Celebrex, Bextra and Vioxx had financial ties to the industry. According to public records and disclosures in medical journals, the 10 advisors had recently consulted with the drugs’ makers.
It should now be painfully clear that citizens can not expect government institutions to provide products that ensure a long and healthy life. It is vital that consumers use common sense and take responsibility for their bodies instead of relying on Big Brother to provide for them. However, political corruption is not limited to the FDA and the pharmaceutical industry.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for developing and executing U.S. federal policy on farming, agriculture, and food. As a government agency, its task is to regulate these areas so that consumers don’t need to worry about food safety. This is great in theory, and we’ve come to expect the USDA to provide us with a variety of safe, “healthy,” food choices. But again, we’re faced with the situation where the regulatory agencies are controlled by the very industries they are regulating.
Take, for example, the cash crop corn. Corn is easy to grow and can be manipulated for a variety of food purposes (maltodextrin, high fructose corn syrup, etc.). As explained in the documentary Food, Inc., food mogul Tyson lobbied Congress to get subsides on corn. With corn subsidies, corn is now produced at below the price of production. Since meat animals are fed corn, this significantly reduces the price of meat in America. However, the over-abundance of corn has had negative social results. Because corn is so cheap, food manufacturers are using corn products as food additives. High fructose corn syrup is particularly dangerous. It is the number one source of calories consumed in America, and it has been linked to obesity and diabetes. But the health risks extend beyond just the overconsumption of calories (which, by the way, is very easy to do since high fructose corn syrup paralyzes the “I’m full” switch in your brain). High fructose corn syrup is not natural and interferes with your body’s ability to secrete insulin and metabolize fat. However, because it is so cheap it is used in literally thousands of processed foods. Processed foods seriously damage your health, but yet they are the most affordable foods on the market. This is possible because of government subsidies on major cash crops. These government subsidies are the result of billions of dollars spent on lobbying efforts by major food corporations. And as is the case with the pharmaceutical industry, the interests of the food industry are often tied to government agencies. Under the Bush administration, the chief of staff of the USDA was the former chief lobbyist to the beef industry. The head of the FDA was former executive vice president of the food processing association (this, and other information about food manufacturing can be found in the documentary Food, Inc).
Everything we eat affects our being. When you eat a cheeseburger, it doesn’t just pass through you. Your body uses that food to give you energy, rejuvenate (or destroy) your cells, and create new blood. What we eat, drink, pop, or inject becomes a part of who we are. We have been relying on social institutions to dictate the methods for achieving lifelong health. But we have been wrong. We can not depend on a system whose interests are vested in the financial gains of its members to provide us with adequate health care. As long as there is money to be made from sick people, corporations will continue to promote this state. As long as members of the USDA have financial investments in the food industry, policies will favor the financial gains of the industry over the health of the consumer. We need to redefine our political expectations to address the root of the problem. The FDA and USDA are currently acting as the middle man between the consumer and the industry. And right now, the favor is in the industry. We can not change this; but we can change our expectations. We need consider these agencies as performing the bare minimum, rather than the maximum. Instead of expecting the FDA and USDA to guide us to healthy living, we need to take actions which support the change we would like to see. Reforming the system may seem like a daunting task, but I believe it is possible.
Education is the first step. Our public schools provide little, if any, heath education. The food pyramid is a pathetic excuse for a food guide, as it makes no distinction between processed refined grains (think Wonder Bread), and whole grains. When grains are refined, the bran is removed. This contains an abundance of nutrients and is the main source of fiber. Without the bran, refined grains are instantly converted into sugar by the body. Whole grains contain fiber and a huge array of nutrients. However, I think it is fair to say that most consumers don’t differentiate between refined grains and whole grains. A basic understanding of nutrition is vital if we hope to reclaim our health from the industries controlling it. One needs to understand the properties of foods and their interaction with the body if one is expected to make healthy food choices. Implementing a national health education program in public schools would go a long way in creating a healthy citizenry. Lifelong habits are formed during teenage years, so this would be the most effective time to present health education to the public. A citizenry who is properly educated about food choices will result in a healthier citizenry. A healthy citizenry will be less dependant on synthetic drugs to keep them “healthy.” Of course, a healthy diet won’t solve all of the nation’s woes, and there will still be a need for prescription drugs; but with education the power will be in the hands of the people, not the industry.
The massive budget of the food and drug industries has secured them a cozy place in government policy. As citizens, there is little we can do to change that. We need to stop expecting the government to provide us with healthy options. It is not likely to happen. A far more practical approach would be demand our government provide us with the tools necessary to make informed decisions about our health. Health education would help level the playing field, while still adhering to the rules of the game. However, a public health education program is not just going to appear. As citizens it is appropriate, and vital, that we take an active role in implementing this. Despite the corruption, we do still live in a representative democracy, and the government is still going to receptive to the demands of the people. So write to your senator or call your representative; stop being a victim of the system; take back your liberty. Your body is your first form of property. The government’s job is to protect your liberty and property. Make them make it happen.
Berenson, Alex, Harris Gardiner, Barry Meier, and Andrew Pollack. “Despite Warnings, Drug Giant Took Long Path to Vioxx Recall.” The New York Times 14 Nov 2004.
Mercola, Joseph. “More Vioxx Coverups Float to the Top” Dr. Mercola 7 July 2005
Mercola, Joseph. “Secrets of the FDA Revealed by Top Inside Doctor.” Dr. Mercola 13 July 2005
Levinthal, David. “Federal Lobbying Climbs in 2009 as Federal Lawmakers Execute Aggressive Congressional Agenda.” Capital Eye Blog 12 Feb 2010
Graham, David. “Testimony of David J. Graham, MD, MPH.” 18 Nov 2004
Loudon, Manette. “The FDA Exposed: An Interview with Dr. David Graham, the Vioxx Whistleblower.” 30 Aug 2005
Gardiner Harris, and Alex Berenson. “FDA Painkiller Panel Advisors Lined to Pharmaceutical Firms: 10 members worked as paid consultants.” San Francisco Chronicle. 25 Feb 2005
Food, Inc. Dir. Robert Kenner. Magnolia Picture, 4 June 2009.
Mercola, Joseph. “