Stories like the one I’m going to tell you this week and next make me proud to be a Chicagoan. Nobel prize winning Chicago author Saul Bellow said that we reside in the “contempt center of the USA” and, you know, I’ve got to agree. We take to such chicanery as well-placed bribes, cronyism, no-bid contracts, and politicians hay-tumbling with big corporations as naturally as naive folk worldwide take to breathing.
What I mean is that no Chicagoan would lift a surprised eyebrow to learn that the well-organized machinations of multinational pharmaceutical companies have pulled the ultimate hornswoggle on all Europe: The European Union (EU) has actually banned herbs for medicinal use. All herbs. Banned.
(Figuring that no one in Europe reads these health tips, I’m not going to offend anyone with that hornswoggle reference. But if you know any Europeans, don’t forward this unless you deliberately want them to feel bad.)
My main purpose in reporting this is simple enough. There’s an extremely strong likelihood that such a ban will occur here in the US during the next five years. That’s right, a total ban on all medicinal herbs except by physician’s prescription (possibly even unavailable to chiropractors and herbalists). Behind this potential ban is (surprise! surprise!) Big Pharma, which currently donates $30 million annually to Congress. This swag is divided about equally between Republicans and Democrats, with some surprising senators, like Illinois’ own Dick Durbin, on the receiving end and also in favor of such a ban on herbs. Supporting Big Pharma (again, surprise!) are the usual suspects: The FDA and the conventional medicine system, the three in a steamy menage a trois that should make your blood run cold.
What occurred in Europe is simple enough, and since it worked so efficiently for Big Pharma there, expect the same outcome here. For the past several years in Europe (and, to a lesser extent, here in the US), there’s been a deliberate misinformation campaign about the “dangers” of herbal medicine. This campaign has especially emphasized the “dangers” of herbal interaction with conventional prescription medication, but also the “duping” of innocent people who spend millions on untested and unproven herbal therapies.
The truth? Herbs are remarkably safe, herb-drug interactions extraordinarily rare, and correctly taken prescription drugs the fourth leading cause of death in the US.
Before I get into the meat of this, you need to know something about public relations firms and what they do. By the way, the inventor of public relations, Edward Bernays, was Woodrow Wilson’s director of propaganda. When Bernays left Washington, he decided the word “propaganda” was too loaded a term and changed it to “public relations.” But what happens to your brain is propaganda, pure and simple.
This is PR
We go through life thinking we have our own opinions about things. We believe we’re reflective, capable of rational thought and drawing intelligent conclusions. In reality, we’re seriously deluded about this. I had a long conversation with a pleasant young woman who worked as a project manager at the world’s largest PR firm. I will quote her directly.
“When I arrived here several years ago after getting my degree in marketing, I was shocked that most of the ideas I thought were my own had been deliberately insinuated into my brain by a PR ‘team’ like the one I direct now. We’re given a project from some corporation that basically challenges us to change the underlying belief systems of the target population. You have ‘opinions’ you never knew you had because we put them there. And when you ‘believe’ in them and can defend them, then we’ve done our job really well.”
Some examples come immediately to mind. The statement “Brand-name drugs are safer and more reliable than generics” can certainly be traced to the PR arm of the pharmaceutical manufacturer’s association, PhRMA (the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America). The statement’s antithesis, “Generic drugs are just as good as brand names and can save you a lot of money,” comes from the health insurance industry, which wants to pay less for your drugs so it can reap even more profits than it does already.
The American Medical Association (AMA) routinely calls on PR firms when it’s trying to get some big idea across. True story: In the 1950s, the AMA attempted to eliminate chiropractic medicine from the healthcare landscape. In a deliberate and well-orchestrated project, they placed phony newspaper articles about patients who had been rendered paralyzed by chiropractic manipulation, or who had cancers misdiagnosed as “misalignments” by ignorant chiropractors.
That chiropractic was dangerous became a mantra in my own medical school education. Although the American Chiropractic Association took the AMA all the way to the Supreme Court over this (where the AMA lost and is now forbidden by law from saying anything negative about chiropractic), the idea that chiropractic can kill you to this very day floats through most medical schools.
Where am I going with all this? Oh yes, the European ban on herbs.
You can imagine that Big Pharma dislikes the idea of its potential customers self-medicating with herbs instead of using their high-priced prescription drugs, especially if someone other than Big Pharma is profiting from herb sales. Every capsule of the antidepressant herb St. John’s wort someone swallows means one less tablet of their antidepressants Lexapro or Cymbalta. Every black cohosh for menopause is one less Premarin, a hormone replacement drug. What better way to stifle the competition than have the government ban your competitor’s product? What better way to make serious money from this ban than to have the government license you (and only you) to return it to market?
To set about doing this, for the past several years, Big Pharma has been funding studies intended to disprove the clinical effectiveness of herbs. They’ve also released trumped-up “findings” that taking a particular supplement or herb is “dangerous and potentially fatal.”
Researchers who will prostitute themselves for money are not difficult to find at big-name university hospitals, so Big Pharma buys a researcher, outlines a study, cuts a fat check, tinkers with the numbers, gets a thumbs-up from the researcher (who wants to do more studies in the future, please), turns everything over to a ghostwriter, and lo! your physician starts seeing these “studies” appearing in high-profile medical journals. (For more on all this, click here.)
For example, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published an article in 2001 about the herb St John’s wort (highly effective for mild-to-moderate depression) that largely dismissed the numerous positive St John’s wort studies as inadequate and instead focused on a study funded by an antidepressant manufacturer. The results of “negative studies” like this one, and many more, are turned over to PR firms and, ever so slowly, the public and the medical profession, both in the US and Europe, come to believe that many herbs don’t work, are dangerous in and of themselves, or can cause dangerous reactions if inadvertently mixed with prescription drugs. By the time an out-and-out ban on herbs comes up for a vote, all parties have been convinced that doing so is a good idea.
You’d think such an outright ban would be a sufficient gift for Big Pharma, but for really serious money, you need to think like a Chicagoan, Saul Bellow’s “contempt” factor.
Here’s the real game plan (now underway in Europe):
- First, the government bans herbs for public consumption, thus destroying Big Pharma’s competition. Although most herbal companies are quite tiny, Big Pharma views no competitor as too small to be blasted out of existence.
- Second, Big Pharma and the FDA’s counterpart in the European Union arrange for licensing of individual herbs. Big Pharma “tests” an herb, and after paying out approximately $250,000 receives a license to distribute it. This insanely high fee is per herb and is affordable only to Big Pharma, wiping out any chance for small herbal companies to recover.
- Third, Big Pharma itself goes into the herb business, buys up the distressed equipment no longer being used by the now-defunct herb companies, and returns those beloved and newly licensed herbs to the market at ten or 20 times their original price. And—here’s the kicker–makes them available only with a doctor’s prescription.
- Finally, Big Pharma arranges for itself the exclusive rights to develop and sell all future herbal discoveries. ALL DISCOVERIES, FOREVER.
If Big Pharma were given exclusive rights to herbs here, and sold them only by a doctor’s prescription, there would be a massive shift in the propaganda (sorry, “public relations”) and suddenly herbs would be safe and effective. “Researchers” would be paid millions to prove it.
To get an idea of the price increase and potential profits, consider an example that’s already occurred here in the US with the prescription-only fish oil called Lovaza. If you don’t have health insurance to offset the cost, you’ll discover 100 capsules of Lovaza cost $160. But ten feet to the left of your pharmacist’s counter, you can buy 100 capsules of fish oil for about $16. Most Lovaza users do have insurance and spend only the $10 co-pay for their Lovaza, little knowing their insurer picks up the difference (and you wonder why your premiums shoot up). Equally dramatic is an amino acid supplement called galantamine, proven useful for Alzheimer’s. You can buy 90 capsules over-the-counter on amazon.com for $44, but the same number of capsules of prescription galantamine, called Razadyne, rings up at $310.
Now imagine that the $16 bottle of fish oil capsules is forever banned by the government and your only source is Lovaza, requiring a doctor’s prescription (and a doctor visit, of course, to get that prescription). Then apply that concept to every single herb you can think of: Echinacea, valerian, kava, saw palmetto, and on and on.
Consider, too, that like a shark endlessly hunting for prey, Big Pharma must have a continual supply of new drugs in the pipeline. The amount of time they can own a drug and extract profits from it is relatively short, and the cost of developing new drugs is high. What better pipeline than the entire world’s herb supply? Big Pharma is fully aware of the safety and effectiveness of herbs. Their next step is to patent the active ingredient of the herb or mix it with another herb or vitamin and then patent that combination. Herbs aren’t a gold mine for Big Pharma–they’re diamonds.
As a quick example, European women love Remifemin, an extremely effective herbal blend for menopause symptoms. With the ban, it will shortly disappear from the over-the-counter shelves and, yes, women are hoarding it now. But very likely they can expect it back in a year or so by prescription-only at many times the price.
Since prescription medications are covered under various European national healthcare systems, what has been created there is a direct flow of money from Europe’s national treasuries into Big Pharma’s coffers.
Next week: How this all came about and what’s being done to fight it.
David Edelberg, MD