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Boycotting - new drug of choice


Boycotting is my new drug of choice

(Globe and Mail)



Saturday, July 2, 2005, Page F2

Like most of us, I spent my youth in thrall to “the toxic drive” — the human need to alter reality artificially. For others who stick with the thrall as they age, it's cigarettes, or beer. Wealthier people choose The Macallan. But in those days, when I was offered a pill I would just say yes.

The childhood roots of this were my doctor-father's entrancing, corruptive medical magazines with their ads for pharmaceuticals to cure ills I couldn't pronounce. Drugs could never harm, only heal, I thought, and though I wasn't as blasé as those people who take their pet's medications when they can't be bothered to see a doctor (“Hey, an antibiotic is an antibiotic, right?”), in adulthood it was pleasing to feel a drug smash the bacteria, sometimes within minutes.

In Grade 2, I remember illustrating a class project with a cover from Life magazine showing a stylized human body packed with hallucinogenically beautiful capsules, like little sorbets. I got an A. It is chilling to think I nursed this taste in the sixties when drugs like thalidomide and diethylstilbestrol were being casually prescribed to obedient women.

How times have changed, along with my enthusiasms. Having given up illegal drugs, I have begun trying to clear legal but possibly untrustworthy medications from my innards.

The great pharmaceutical firms began merging in the 1980s to keep their share prices high, which made them treat their researchers like slaves manning a Roman galley. Like the big record labels, Big Pharma is only as good as its hottest product, expensive to devise and promote.

This explains why Britney Spears defines today's music industry and anti-depressants and bio-sex drugs define Big Pharma. (Levitra, the latest, has a penis-on-fire logo that looks like an illustration in a teen sex pamphlet.) Now Viagra has been linked to blindness and an anti-depressant called Seroxtat has been said to make people kill themselves rather than cheering them up. Drugs are sent to market without long-term testing, with permission from a government that hungers for their campaign contributions. Yes, it has come to this sorry pass: Me, clean and sober. (I used to drink only French wine. I have now decided I should only drink wine in France.)

What shocked me into it was the latest news about autism. British parents had begun to suspect that the MMR shot, three vaccines in one, was responsible for the increase in autism. Corporations and governments said pish posh, what nonsense, and the issue faded.

Now Robert F. Kennedy Jr. says the villain was the 1991 introduction of thimerosal, a mercury-based additive that preserved vaccines and made them more profitable for Big Pharma to inject en masse. It now seems that the mercury (especially in a triple dose) did terrible things to developing infant brains. Why would anyone have thought it would not, one wonders.

He says this is why the odious U.S. Senator Bill Frist this year added to an anti-terrorism bill a rider that bans compensation for children brain-damaged by thimerosal in vaccines, and actually devised something called the “Eli Lilly Protection Act.” (In Canada, thimerosal does remain in some vaccines. Google “thimerosal” to obtain the Public Health Agency of Canada's June statement on this.)

The scandal gets worse and more complicated, but the reasoning behind concealing Big Pharma misdeeds apparently is that if millions of children in the West and in poor countries, where the leftover tainted vaccines have been sent, were poisoned, the industry would go under. It would be Thalidomide II: Bankruptcy.

Read Irvine Welsh's prescient 1996 short story Fortune's Always Hiding: A Corporate Drug Romance, in which a thalidomide executive retires to Bavaria with his wife and new baby. He has secrets, shall we say, but their life is content. One day, the baby is . . . gone. A parcel arrives. It contains two baby arms. No one can comprehend such a thing. But the father? He goes into the garage and blows his head off with a shotgun. He knows what he did to keep thalidomide selling.

Thalidomide is back. It is said to help treat leprosy, Mantle cell lymphoma and pancreatic cancer. A year ago, a baby was born in Kenya without arms and legs. Thalidomide is being used in Kenya. The parents say their son Freddie is the only victim to appear because babies like him are killed at birth. Freddie sits in a baby chair shaped like a flower pot.

It's the confluence of stories about the hideous effects of inadequately tested drugs that has turned me against pharmaceuticals. Big Pharma, in partnership with docile governments, is getting its way because both bow to the pressures of the market. If ever there were an unacceptable face of capitalism, this is it.

This month, I began withdrawing my bank savings, for inflation meant I was losing money daily. I will find a faintly profitable place to stash them, but I should mention that when I was shown glossy mutual funds with excellent rates of return, they were filled with Big Pharma, with the banks I had just deserted, and companies such as Nestlé that I have boycotted for years.

For this is my substitute, my new habit. I have become a boycotter. I don't buy American goods if I can avoid it, never buy from big Bush donors, only buy Fairtrade food and organic food so that farmers aren't forced to buy genetically modified seeds, and so on.

It's intellectually absorbing, this boycott habit of mine, though not nearly as much fun as filling my young body with drugs without thought for the morrow. 'Tis a thin gruel to feed the toxic drive. But it has its own satisfactions.

Heather Mallick's column is in The Globe and Mail each
Saturday. It appears on Sunday in 

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