Friday, December 10, 2010

Cigarettes, pharmaceuticals, wikileaks, and our right to know

From preventing an update of smoking labels, to ending an independent pharmaceutical review agency, to waging war on wikileaks, corporations and governments are cracking down on our democratic right to information.

     As I've written in other posts, cigarettes are but one of many carcinogens, and blaming smoking for the entire cancer epidemic distracts from toxic chemicals and workplaces over which people have little control, individualizes the causes of cancer, and can turn into moralizing against "bad behaviour" instead of addressing the stressful conditions of people's lives that encourage smoking. That being said, smoking is a preventable causes of death, and labels highlighting the health impacts have been shown to decrease smoking. While Canada was the first country to impose mandatory health warnings on cigarette packages, they have not changed in ten years. There was a 6-year, $4 million plan to update labels--with bigger graphics and a 1-800 national Quitline number--to be launched on May 31, World No Tobacco Day. But at the last minute the Tory government abandoned their plans, diverting focus to contraband cigarettes.
     The CBC has revealed that this decision took place after intense tobacco industry pressure:
"Health Canada's abrupt decision in September to back down from expanding warning labels on cigarette packages came after tobacco company lobbyists waged a co-ordinated, sometimes secretive lobbying campaign…The big three tobacco companies, Imperial Tobacco Canada, JTI-Macdonald Corp. and Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc., lobbied a combined total of 53 times in just over two years, according to the registry. When other industry associations and smaller tobacco companies are factored in, the number of 'communications' jumps to 82."
     The CBC has also revealed that many tobacco lobbyists have ties to the Tories--including Duncan Rayner (who went from director of operations for the Conservative Party to lobbyist for Imperial Tobacco), Ezra Levant (who went from Tory insider to lobbyist for Rothmans, Benson & Hedges, and now ideological defender of the carcinogenic Tar Sands), and Perrin Beatty (who went from Conservative health minister to president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, which lobbies on behalf of the tobacco industry).

     Instead of enhancing labels, the Harper government is parotting the tobacco industry party line that focus should instead be on reducing contraband tobacco. According to professor Dave Hammond, who consulted Health Canada on the warning labels, "they use contraband as a blunt weapon to try and beat down anything else that might be effective." As lobbyist Beatty argues, "There is a significant share of the market that it is being fuelled by organized crime. Do we want to make it easier for organized criminals by eliminating the ability of other people to offer brands in competition?" So their efforts are not to reduce smoking, but to eliminate competition with tobacco company profits.
      Like the Harper government's decision to spend billions of dollars building prisons despite a falling crime rate, the hysteria about contraband tobacco goes against current trends. According statistics from Health Canada, sales in contraband cigarette consumption have declined since 2009, along with increases in brand name tobacco. Like the government's false dichotomy between "combat" and "non-combat troops" in Afghanistan, the dichotomy between contraband and brand-name tobacco diverts attention from the fact that cigarettes, like military occupations, are deadly regardless of what form they take. Cigarettes kill 45,000 Canadians a year, 100 times the number of people murdered. Instead of being tough on corporate crime, the government is coluding with it. As Cynthia Callard of Physicians for a Smoke Free Canada describes the tobacco lobby (shown previously in the great film, The Insider):
"There's no way of knowing conversations that take place over golf games or cocktail parties or people who float between one world and another...By and large they threaten, they bully, they cajole, they seduce and they purchase support and they've done that for decades. So it's no surprise that they've been successful this time and it's sadly no surprise why they're successful."
     Another recent sad victory for corporations is the killing of the Therapeutics Initiative, a publicly-funded group based at the University of British Columbia, that provides independent evidence-based reviews of pharmaceutical risks and benefits. Therapeutics Initiative helped expose the health risks of blockbuster drug Vioxx. Vioxx, an anti-arthritis medicine, was heavily marketed and made billions for Merck. But it increased the risk of heart attacks and killed killed more Americans than were killed in the Vietnam War. Thanks to the early warnings by Therapeutics Initative, it was kept it off the shelf in BC, saving 500 lives.
     Therapeutics Iniative has also called into question the costly and widespread use of levaquin to treat pneumonia, statins for primary prevention of heart attacks, gabapentin for chronic pain, and recently blew the whistle on a new blood-thinner. Dabigatran is set to replace coumadin as a blood thinner to prevent stroke, and has been approved by Health Canada based on a study funded by its maker, pharmaceutical giant Boehringer Ingelheim. Therapeutics Iniative recently alerted the fact that it appears to increase the risk of heart attacks and stomach bleeds, but the company refuses to release all its safety data. In additition to exposing health risks of Big Pharma, Therapeutics Iniative's input to which medications will be covered by the provincial drug plan has saved the government $50 million a year and given BC the lowest average per-capita drug spending.
     But despite this life-saving, cost-saving and efficiency, the BC government (under industry pressure) cut the small $1 million required to sustain Therapeutics Iniative,  refused to hire the scientists to its advisory board, and instead will base its decisions on profit-driven pharmaceutical companies. This is the latest scandal in the corrupt world of Big Pharma (for a more detailed look into the industry, see this video).

     If pressuring a government to cut funds to a review agency that saves lifes and resources isn't damning enough, how about trying to sabotage a government's lawsuit against a company for its role in the death of children with meningitis. That's what wikileaks has recently revealed about the world's largest pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, which tried to pressure the Nigerian attorney general to drop charges against Pfizer for its antibiotic's role in the death of children during a meningitis epidemic in 1996.
     Wikileaks has come under sustained attack by governments and corporations--from kicking it off internet servers to calls to assassinating its editor in chief--for the "crime" of releassing information that the public should know: about corporate corruption, military war crimes, government lies. The leak about Pfizer is just the tip of the iceberg, as wikileaks has announced it will blow the whistle on corporations after finishing the current release of diplomatic cables.
     Please sign the petition by Avaaz to defend their freedom of expression and freedom of the press. And you can donate to wikileaks through their website. There is no freedom or democracy without information, and from cigarettes to pharmaceuticals to corporate/government behaviour we have a right to know.


  1. Thanks for writing about Therapeutics Initiative as I was unaware of their treatment from the Federal government. I'm really enjoying your blog so far and will continue reading past posts and have signed up to Follow. Really great work!

  2. Thanks MaryJane

    What a world we lie in, where the individual choice to smoke marijuana--including for medical use--is a crime in some places, but pushing dangerous cigarettes/pharmaceuticals on millions for profit is not.

    Thanks to your blogs I now know where to go to get info on cannabis.

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