It’s a crisis, but nothing to do with them . . .

It’s frequently asserted that the global pharmaceutical industry is in deep trouble. Owing to the staggering cost of producing a new drug, ‘big pharma’ needs blockbusters (bestsellers that will generate vast amounts of money). These are few and far between these days, and some observers have concluded that they’ve ‘picked all the low hanging fruit’. However, the American medical culture is unique. The USA is one of only two countries (the other is New Zealand) that allow drug companies to advertise on TV. Consequently the USA is swamped with medication, and ‘big pharma’ spends billions on direct advertising to doctors, and on ensuring that regulators and politicians don’t interfere with their activities.

Since 1999, prescription pain medication has killed about 350,000 Americans, and it’s the leading cause of death among the under 50s in the USA. This is ‘the opioid epidemic’, and it’s a monumental human catastrophe. Opium-based treatments for pain were restricted until the early 1980s, when a single paper (later revealed to be based on weak data) and a short 101 word letter to a leading journal established a whopping lie: “Less than 1% of patients treated with opioids become addicted.” Drug companies now produced a range of synthetic versions of opioids, and the marketing aimed at regulators and doctors was explicit. The message was simple and very successful: “It’s irresponsible not to treat pain.”  

Several brands were involved in the crisis, but there’s a general consensus that OxyContin is a major culprit. It became available in 1996, and was issued by Purdue Pharma. OxyContin used a proprietary coating designed to offer “continuous release” (hence the “Contin”) and it was disingenuously claimed to be “less addictive”. In fact, the release mechanism made it more addictive, and anyway the coating could easily be removed. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved OxyContin for “moderate to severe pain”, and Purdue launched an unprecedented marketing campaign. They employed almost 1,000 reps, and specifically targeted locations where two crucial factors were firmly established; there were high levels of opioid prescription and dependency was already an issue. A typical example is the destitute rural towns of Appalachia, and in one of these (population only 3,000) a single clinic legally prescribed more drugs than the whole of West Virginia’s University Hospital. Unsurprisingly some prescribers were making a fortune, and one enthusiastic doctor crammed some of his $7 million in cash into a safe deposit box.

By 2009 sales of OxyContin hit a staggering $3 billion a year, the same year that drug overdose deaths exceeded road accident fatalities in the USA. This grubby saga of corporate greed relied on blatant misrepresentation (via funded reports) to ensure that the FDA and legislative bodies didn’t interrupt the gravy train or the appalling death toll. Purdue insist that they always follow FDA rules, and they blame doctors for over-prescribing and patients for misuse. Earlier this year (2018) Purdue stopped marketing OxyContin, but 2 million Americans are addicted to opioids and heroin use has accelerated (with opioids identified as the gateway drug to heroin).

Obviously, all prescribed opioids in the US and the UK had to go through the legally required animal testing before they were approved. There are multiple causes of the epidemic, but all the deficiencies and immorality of vivisection are exposed by this tragedy. Negative animal results (in this case, pinpointing the highly addictive nature of opioids) can be ignored and then ‘manipulated’ or simply removed before data is supplied to the FDA (see notes below). The cosy relationship between the FDA and pharma companies – the revolving door syndrome – is another and not unconnected scandal.

In the USA Purdue are facing an avalanche of lawsuits, and they will (almost certainly) have to make huge compensation payments. However, these losses will be fairly insignificant against the billions generated by OxyContin. The final irony is that a new treatment for opioid addiction was recently patented in the USA, and the patent was granted to (wait for it) none other than Purdue Pharma.

Paul Freestone

 

Notes:

For a full account of the opioid epidemic, see Beth Macy, Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company That Addicted America, Little, Brown and Co., 2018; also Sam Quinones, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, Bloomsbury Press, 2016.

A recent article in the journal Science discusses the “incredibly alarming” practice of cherry-picking data from pre-clinical (i.e. animal) trials of drugs, and the flawed reporting of these trials to the FDA: see ‘Study questions animal efficacy data behind trials’, Science, 13 April 2018 (vol.360, p.142), accessible here: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6385/142  It’s an especially shameful part of a wider problem – the failure of truly dis-interested research – which is the special theme of the journal’s issue for 21 September of this year.

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I’m Listening to The Moral Maze, Get Me Out of Here …

Radio 4’s The Moral Maze is usually interesting, despite its confrontational format. The panel of ‘interrogators’ constantly interrupt the guests as they struggle to complete a single sentence. In the 1990s the historian David Starkey used his appearances on The Moral Maze to his own advantage. After the tabloids labelled him “the rudest man in Britain” he was delighted and stated: “It’s worth at least £100,000 a year.” Even worse than Starkey is the long-standing chairman Michael Buerk, as he is accountable for several heinous crimes against good taste and decency. Firstly, he’s directly responsible for creating Saint Bob Geldof the humanitarian campaigner. Buerk’s BBC TV news report (23/10/84) about the Ethiopian famine instigated the Band Aid record, and the 1985 Live Aid concerts. Buerk’s bombastic commentary (“a Biblical famine”) is celebrated as a landmark broadcast, but this and most of the subsequent media reports about Ethiopia made little or absolutely no attempt to understand the politics of famine. Crucially, it was rarely mentioned that a substantial amount of grain was still being produced in the horn of Africa, but most of it was being exported to the West for animal feed.

Live Aid (the first global pop charity event) established the idea of huge portentous charity concerts as a panacea for all the world’s problems. Buying the crappy Band Aid record or sending donations to Live Aid allowed people to feel very good about themselves, and then they could instantly forget about starving Africans. Any proposal for eating less meat, or going veggie as an effective method of alleviating hunger, would have been laughable in 1985. Today there is more awareness about the unsustainability of meat production, but global demand for meat is still increasing and about 45% of the global grain harvest is wasted as animal feed. It’s over 30 years since Live Aid, and nothing much has changed in Ethiopia, although Bob Geldof is now very rich (he avoids paying any UK tax).

The edition of The Moral Maze (17/2/16) tackled the subject of boycotts. In his introduction Buerk employed his trademark sneering tone as he dismissed various campaigns, including one against the use of kangaroo skin for football boots. Subsequently, Claire Fox (from the very unpretentiously titled Institute of Ideas) made this semi-literate statement: “A lot of animal rights activists boycott pharmaceutical companies, etc, because they believe in animal rights. You could say that [for] the overall good of society it’s that actually animal experimentation is what’s needed [sic] for medicine. So if those boycotts are successful, if they cause enough trouble for the firms that they actually stop doing something, then society is going to be damaged. What’s ethical about that?”

It’s ironic that she poses the ethical question, because of

course ethics is the key issue in any debate about vivisection. But for Claire Fox, apparently, ethics is a purely human affair, its function being to provide “what’s needed” by human society. Unfortunately, her speciesist viewpoint probably reflects what most people think about animal testing. It certainly reflects the thinking of chairman Buerk, an intemperate enemy of the animal rights movement.

Meanwhile, Michael Buerk is attempting to emulate the greed and hubris of Sir Bob. He does voice-overs for TV adverts (a very lucrative business). In 2014 he “went into the jungle” as a contestant on the reality TV show I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. This involves a bunch of so-called celebrities being stranded in the Springbok National Park in Australia. They compete against each other to avoid an early exit, and have to endure various unpleasant trials, some of which involve eating live insects. Buerk was paid £150,000 for taking part, and conceded that he only did it for the money (well, he had to admit that didn’t he?). It all sounds like the lowest level of worthless and demeaning entertainment (but obviously I’ve never watched it). It’s a TV show which manages to exploit both humans and animals. The ‘celebs’ themselves are there for the publicity and a fat fee, even though they are exposed to 24 hour scrutiny and potential ridicule. But why does anybody want to watch this distasteful voyeurism? They must enjoy seeing these individuals going through a humiliating experience, and perhaps this echoes the pleasure that some humans derive from hunting and shooting wild animals in similar settings. Anyway, this TV show typifies the sort of thing that Buerk himself would usually regard with contempt. After all he is a highly respected journalist and broadcaster, but then (as they say) everybody has their price.

 

[References: for an account of the effectiveness of the Live Aid campaign, see http://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/jun/24/g8.debtrelief ]

                                                                                                                                Paul Freestone

I’d rather be bonkers than ignorant …

Before her promotion to the Shadow Cabinet, Kerry McCarthy was interviewed for the Viva! Life magazine. In the published article she states: “I really believe that meat should be treated in exactly the same way as tobacco, with public campaigns to stop people eating it.” Unsurprisingly, this generated a lot of media interest owing to her much publicised appointment as the Shadow Minister for DEFRA. All the nationals covered the story, and they all used a variation of this banner headline: “Treat meat eaters like smokers, says Labour’s vegan MP.” Obviously, this a distortion of what she actually said, and one paper described Viva! Life as “a magazine for vegans” (which means nobody else could possibly be interested in reading it?). Anyway, KM’s main point was that eating meat is unhealthy, and the more you eat the greater the risks. Therefore, people should be encouraged (via government health campaigns) to reduce or stop eating it. This makes perfect sense to anyone with the slightest awareness of the impact of increased meat consumption on the nation’s health. Basically, there is a direct correlation between the amount you eat (especially red meat) and the risk of serious medical conditions and reduced life expectancy. The biggest killer in the western world is heart disease, and saturated animal fat is the crucial factor.

Subsequently, on R4’s Any Questions (25/9/15) a specific question was asked about KM’s comment in Viva! Life magazine. The panel of esteemed idiots rose to the occasion with these statements. Firstly, Dr Ruth Lea (chair of Economists for Britain) stated: “I thinks she’s bonkers. Meat eating is, on the whole, meant to be good for your health. I don’t think anybody would dispute the fact that smoking is unhealthy, but it’s just not comparable [with eating meat]. The comment is just bonkers.” Secondly, this was followed by the dazzling insight of Sir Vince Cable (ex-Business Secretary in the Coalition Government). He stated: “The remark she made is fatuous. The problem with smoking is passive smoking; it harms others. I’m trying to work out what passive meat eating is [audience laughs] and how you harm other people by eating meat.” At this point the chairman (Jonathan Dimbleby) interjected: “Gas is given off by cows, and this damages the atmosphere.”

Where to begin with these comments? Firstly, they demonstrate a staggering level of arrogance and ignorance. Do these people really have no knowledge about the modern western diet with its high intakes of saturated animal fat, and the diseases of affluence (obesity, heart disease, diabetes and bowel cancer, etc)? Secondly, the huge environmental impact of meat production. At least this was mentioned by the chairman, but are they really unaware of the fact that the vast global livestock population is responsible for more greenhouse gasses than all of the world’s transport systems? Thirdly, Ruth Lea and Vince Cable should have a basic understanding of the economics of sustainability. It’s pretty simple really; if (for example) red meat production requires a feed conversion ratio of 10:1 (that’s 10 kilos of feed for each kilo of meat) then it’s unsustainable. In fact, it isn’t just unsustainable, it’s bonkers.

Paul Freestone

 

She can’t do that job, she’s “a committed vegan” …

The new Labour leader (Jeremy Corbyn) has selected the only vegan MP in the Commons (Kerry McCarthy) as Shadow Minister for DEFRA (Dept for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs). This is brilliant news for all animal welfare and animal rights groups, and such a decision would have been unthinkable only a few weeks ago.

However, this appointment has infuriated the National Farmers Union (NFU) and every other sector of the meat and dairy industries. It has also generated a lot of negative and unpleasant comments on social media. Most of the controversy seems to revolve around the fact that she is (as described by the presenter of R4’s World at One) “a committed vegan” and this in itself makes her “unsuitable” for the job. Johann Tasker from Farmer’s Weekly (a bastion of enlightened thinking) made these comments: “This is like appointing a pacifist as Shadow Defence Secretary. This isn’t just somebody who’s vegetarian, or against the badger cull, as farmers could work with someone like that. Kerry McCarthy believes that the livestock sector is dirty and cruel, that dairy farming is about forcing cows to give more milk than is natural, and the poultry industry is about getting hens to lay more eggs than is natural.” Bizarrely, the hapless Mr Tasker has actually highlighted specific points that are all true. Livestock production is “dirty and cruel”, dairy farming is obsessed with forcing cows to produce “more milk than is natural”, and the paramount aim of the poultry industry is to maximise the output of chickens which includes laying “more eggs than is natural”.

Crucially, one of McCarthy’s most damning critiques of DEFRA ministers is that they are simply “a spokesperson for the NFU”. Obviously, the NFU isn’t going to welcome anyone who makes this sort of assessment (especially when it happens to be very accurate). Any idea that their long standing cosy relationship with every DEFRA minister for decades could be disrupted will be anathema to them. Paradoxically, instead of being “totally unsuitable”, Kerry McCarthy is the ideal choice for this role. Firstly, she is passionately concerned with the key issues of animal welfare and sustainability. Secondly, she will confront all those appalling vested interests with a detailed knowledge of what really happens within factory farming and all methods of meat and dairy production.

Unsurprisingly, the tabloids have had a field day typified by The Daily Mail which referred to her as a “Militant Vegan MP” and proclaimed: “She has been vegan for 20 years and refuses to wear wool.” In fact, she presents her so-called “militant veganism” in a very reasonable way. On R4’s World at One (16/9/15) she stated: “It’s about sustainability and good welfare standards, and I’m very happy to work with the NFU and the farming community on this. I’m opposed to the move towards ever more intensive industrialised farming and huge dairy and pig farms. Also, I’m not opposed to the badger cull because I’m vegan. I’m opposed to it because very authoritative reports by scientists and experts have said it’s ineffective, and it’s not the way to stop bovine TB.”

Finally, it’s noteworthy that the widespread objections to McCarthy’s appointment echo those made against the new Labour leader. Apparently, it’s unacceptable to employ politicians in senior positions if they have deeply held principles and genuine beliefs. These individuals want to change the world, and make it a better place for everyone (which includes all sentient species across the planet). And personally, I really like the idea of a pacifist Shadow Defence Secretary.

Paul Freestone

To hear Kerry McCarthy speaking on Radio 4’s The Food Programme, about being vegan in the House of Commons, go to Feeding the Commons – Part II: Lunch to Lights Out (Her interview begins after about 7 minutes).

He can’t be a party leader, he believes in what he says …

There is a media storm over the leadership battle for the Labour Party. Against all the odds Jeremy Corbyn is currently the most popular candidate. It’s being claimed that he was only nominated to ensure that “the loony left” was represented, and now there are endless warnings that if he’s successful he will make Labour unelectable. However, some of the most extreme comments about Corbyn simply highlight the fact that he genuinely believes in a whole set of principles. It’s noteworthy that every media report mentions the fact that he’s a vegetarian. And even worse than that, he really is. The Daily Mail referred to him as “a strict vegetarian”, but they probably don’t actually know the difference between “a vegetarian” (you don’t eat any meat or fish) and “a strict vegetarian” (you don’t eat any meat or fish). The confusion for tabloid hacks is probably caused by “celebrity vegetarians” like Gwyneth Paltrow (she claims to be veggie but isn’t).

And when he was interviewed for The Guardian a few years ago, these ridiculous comments appear: “Our meeting was delayed for a few minutes by an amicable disagreement at the hot food counter in the Strangers’ Cafe in the House of Commons. Corbyn was refusing a plate of spaghetti because it was served bolognese. He insisted on being given a dull looking vegetable goulash instead. ‘I don’t eat meat,’ he explained. He takes his vegetarianism, like all his other beliefs, very seriously.”

Please note that the disagreement was “amicable”; instead of him shouting and screaming as most vegetarians obviously would. Also, that he was “given a dull looking vegetable goulash instead”. Of course this dish was “dull looking”, everybody knows that veggie food is always dull. And finally, “he takes his vegetarianism, like all his other beliefs, very seriously”. What? That’s outrageous, I don’t want somebody like this leading the Labour Party. Can you imagine what he might say about the meat industry, the badger cull, fish farming, and vivisection?

After all, this is the MP who led the deputation to No. 10 Downing Street in 2006 to hand in The Primate Nations (the report which showed why we shouldn’t be using non-humanJC at WDAIL 1984 primates in experiments); who won the Gandhi Foundation’s International Peace Prize in 2013 for his work for social justice and non-violence, including non-violence against animals; who has signed 13 of the 14 Early Day Motions currently putting the case for animals before the House of Commons; who in fact has backed campaigns for animals all through his parliamentary career.

OK, I accept the fact that it will be very difficult for Labour to win the next election if they adopt a series of left wing policies under Corbyn’s potential leadership. However, the Labour Party is currently “unelectable” because of the horrendous legacy of Tony Blair. It’s deeply ironic that Blair has publicly stated his objection to Corbyn. Could there be a greater difference between these two politicians? The former is a Messianic nutcase; guilty of a long list of heinous crimes against humanity. He always promoted himself as “a practising Christian”, and after leaving office he converted to Catholicism (which is enough to have him carted off in a strait jacket).

Have we really reached such a dire level in British politics that a man with “serious beliefs” based on fairness and compassion is considered a bad choice as a party leader? Maybe Corbyn is doing so well because he represents something that has been so lacking within our political structure? He might not have enough broad appeal to win a general election, but he’s still a fantastic breath of fresh air. And it’s just wonderful to dream about the possibility of a vegetarian Prime Minister.

 

[The photograph shows Jeremy Corbyn speaking at a World Day for Animals in Laboratories rally in 1984.]

 

Paul Freestone