Monday, June 17, 2013

Capitalism and Big Pharma an unhealthy concoction

by Richard Mellor

One of my favorite lines from the movies is from Crocodile Dundee.  The wild Aussie has been brought back to the US by his new upper middle class girlfriend. At a party in her rich parents house she points out the guests.  One of them is a wealthy woman who is talking to her shrink.

“Is she nuts? the outback man asks.

The girlfriend laughs and explains that sometimes people just need someone to talk to.

“Hasn’t she got any mates?" He replies.

The problem is that “mates” don’t normally charge a fee for providing emotional support and friendship.  They also don’t prescribe drugs.  “Mates” in the way Crocodile Dundee meant it in the film, are simply not good for business and for capitalism in general.

Health care in the US is a huge and very profitable industry.  It is better described as the sickness industrial complex. Prescription drugs are pushed on television through aggressive advertising, something that is illegal in many countries.  If it’s a football game or a male oriented show the viewer will be bombarded by ads about erectile dysfunction and other newly discovered diseases and the cure will be offered in the form of some sort of medication that will ensure you are “ready” whenever the woman demands you perform; just head down to the hospital if your erection lasts more than four hours, it’s not a good sign. If it’s a more sedate show appealing to older folks, the drugs being pushed might be for hair loss (another syndrome) or for peeing too often. There is such a thing as peeing too often possibly related to kidneys but if you don't have it they'll convince you you do.

Excessive shyness, baldness, anger, restless leg syndrome; we have them all and the pharmaceutical companies have the pill for these medical conditions.

Then there’s ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder an affliction that I have been accused of having.  The symptoms are severe: “fidgeting” “overlooking details” “difficulty remaining focused during lengthy reading” “Taps hands”.  It took thousands of years of human existence for psychiatrists and other scientists to figure out that these symptoms are not connected to people losing their jobs and homes, or are unhappy at work or who can’t get basic health care for them and their families.  Nor is the existence of ADHD among children related to these social issues-----they have ADHD, and thanks to the pharmaceutical industry they have the pill for it.

An op ed piece in today’s Wall Street Journal points out that almost one in five boys in US high schools have been diagnosed with ADHD according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Six million children between the ages of 4 and 17 have been diagnosed with it and are prescribed amphetamines in the form of Ritalin and/or Adderall as a cure. 

Originally, amphetamines were pushed as the anti-depressant of choice and were once given to US soldiers in WW2 to “boost morale and improve performance in combat” the authors tell us.  The drug was also used by some major corporations for the same reasons; they can improve productivity up to a point, until the addiction sets in that is.  Amphetamines were also pushed as the go-to weight loss pills. One prominent 1950’s ad for the amphetamine AmPlus promised people that they would be “beachable by summer.”

The benefits of the drug as a cure for depression and as a weight loss pill were soon found lacking as its addictive qualities became apparent in the long term but “….the lack of proof didn’t hold doctors back from liberally prescribing stimulants to millions of housewives in postwar suburbs” the authors add, prescribing 120 mg of amphetamine for each American.  Despite further studies revealing the dangers and addictive qualities of speed, the drugs were very profitable and doctors continued prescribing them until some restraint was introduced with the passing of the Controlled Substances Act in 1971. Between 1969 and 1972, prescriptions for speed to treat depression and obesity fell 90%.

This was not a good development as far as big Pharma was concerned and (just by chance?) before long a new use for the drug popped up as a treatment for Hyperkinetic Reaction of Childhood now called ADHD.  The problem was that the addiction qualities kept prescriptions low along with the “watchful eye” of the DEA say the authors; another example of “big government” regulation interfering with market opportunities.  Something had to be done.

By the nineties various advocacy groups began making the argument that speed didn’t lead to addiction in the treatment of children with ADHD.  In fact, using speed actually helped prevent future drug abuse advocates argued. “ADHD itself” was a risk factor in future drug abuse and so by treating ADHD wih speed actually reduced the chances of their children using drugs in the future.  Putting their children on speed, parents were told, “…would decrease the risks of future trouble with alcohol and drugs.”  According to the authors of the WSJ piece this was based on very flimsy evidence.  But we are taught if someone in a white lab coat or who is an accepted “expert” in their field tells us something it must be accurate.  They have a white lab coat after all and are doctors.

It turns out now that ADHD does predispose children to substance abuse later in life but there is “…no evidence that stimulant medication reduces this rate any better than treating ADHD with behavioral approaches” say the authors.

The first issue for me is whether there is such a disease at all.  The symptoms displayed by children that lead to these diagnoses and the corresponding cures seem natural responses to social conditions.  Most of these syndromes we hear about on TV now for which there is a corresponding cure in the form of a drug are simply natural physical and emotional responses to the degenerating objective conditions we find ourselves in, societal decay and lack of control over our lives. One doctor friend once told me she was called by a patient who claimed she had a syndrome/disease the doctor had never heard of.  Her patient had heard about it on TV and was told, as the ads always tell you, to “call her doctor “ and ask if the advertised drug is, “right for you

The same with depression.  While I am sure there are real physical/mental imbalances that can lead to depression, it seems it is a natural response to the world around us.  Surely we have an abundance of reasons to be depressed. The fierce competition for work; fear and anxiety caused by economic insecurity; social isolation; the trauma of war, racism, sexism and all forms of inequality all contribute to the increasing levels of stress in America undermining the mental welfare of all working people. The message of the corporations and the rich is for everyone to take care of themselves and to treat our problems by buying pharmaceuticals.

This is compounded by the mass media that is designed to demoralize and encourage a feeling of helplessness and that everyone is out to get us. The general bent of mass propaganda tells us there is nothing we can do to change things, we are powerless. There is nothing more demoralizing than victimhood.  And there is nothing more liberating than fighting back, refusing to be just a victim of history but participating in the making of some of it. 

For the sickness industry the pill is a good business decision.  Health care in America is no different than any other business; maximizing profits comes first. Here are some thoughts on an alternative to the business model of caring for human health and welfare.

A Socialist Alternative for Universal Healthcare*

End Poverty

*Decent housing, food, and jobs for all
* A $20 an hour minimum wage and a 32 -hour working week with no loss in pay for all
*All workers to have paid sick time

End Private profiting from healthcare

* One single health collective with publicly owned hospital and pharmaceutical industries that are under the democratic management of healthcare employees, patients and the communities they serve

Free accessible quality healthcare for all

* Fully staffed clinics providing no charge, basic health care in every neighborhood
Free Comprehensive health benefits with an emphasis on preventative care:

* Vision care, dental and hearing aids . Women’s health care including birth
control, morning after pill, and abortion on demand . Alternative therapies with
proven medical benefit such as acupuncture and chiropractic care . Mental
health care with emphasis on counseling, not just prescribing pills
Take the profit out of medical research

* Create a publicly owned, democratically controlled organization to do medical
research, widening and democratizing the current role of the National Institute for
Health . The direction of medical research to be made by elected councils of
researchers, health care employees, and community members

Unite and Empower Healthcare Workers

 * Create an industry-wide union of healthcare workers to include every worker
in a hospital from the janitor to the surgeon . Improve working conditions for
healthcare workers: wages, shift lengths, nurse-to-patient ratios . Free medical
education: Nurses, technicians and doctors to serve the public without decades of
debt .

* Build an independent political party based on workers, our workplace and community organizations and the youth as a mass political alternative that can break the dictatorship the two capitalist parties have over political life.

These are just some thoughts.  But what do I know?  I don’t have a certificate from the state that qualifies me to have an opinion on such matters like the experts that work for big Pharma and I don’t have a white coat.

* From Facts For Working People March 2007

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