Saturday, February 12, 2011

Drug Insanity Spreads to Canada

One of the scariest things in the US is the cavalier attitude that people have towards drugs. There is this wide-spread conviction that guzzling pills is an acceptable response to pretty much everything. Free samples of pain-killers are distributed in coffee shops, TV commercials exhort people to "ask their doctor" about a new pill that will cure them of everything, "the purple pill" is advertised as an aesthetic object that should be desirable regardless of whether you have the disease it is supposed to cure, personal qualities such as shyness are declared "syndromes" that require medication, doctors are genuinely shocked to discover that a 34-year-old patient doesn't take any prescription or over-the-counter medication, people think it is weird not to have a medicine cabinet in one's house, medication that hasn't gone through a rigorous safety testing regularly appears on the market and causes harm to innumerable pill-lovers.

Canadians have been looking at this pill-popping insanity, and have decided that they want something like that, too. Well, not all Canadians, of course. Just the ones at Health Canada who have been working hard to dismantle the system of safety measures that should prevent untested, dangerous medication from flooding the market:
Health Canada is holding its third and final “technical consultation” on proposals to “modernize” regulations governing prescription drugs and medical devices. The closed-door meetings will take place this week in Ottawa (Jan. 19-21). The Canadian public is largely unaware of the proposed changes, let alone their profound implications. Health Canada is working behind the scenes with the drug industry and drug industry funded groups to lower the drug safety standards and speed new drugs to market, thereby increasing the likelihood that Canadians will be exposed to dangerous new drugs. The proposed technical changes to drug regulation are part of a broader plan to introduce new legislation based on risk management and a lower standard of safety which will replace the current Food and Drug Act, which has as its central aim the protection of public health. The precautionary principle will be scrapped and the burden of proof will be shifted. So, instead of the drug industry having to demonstrate their product is safe, new drugs will be presumed safe and harm will have to be proven.
If that weren't bad enough, there is also a concerted effort on the part of pharmaceutical companies to legalize the advertisement of prescription drugs to consumers. According to Arthur Schafer, the director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, there is a strong push to allow in Canada the same kind of irresponsible advertisement for drugs that we see in the US:
Big Pharma is also lobbying hard for the abolition of current Canadian regulations prohibiting direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs. Experience from the United States and New Zealand -- so far the only two countries to permit DTC advertising -- demonstrates these ads are a highly successful tool for the industry to persuade people to "ask your doctor" for the latest and most expensive products. Tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on campaigns for drugs. Industry calls this "public education" but it's an education which invariably exaggerates benefits and downplays harms. If/when DTC drug advertising is approved in Canada, the costs to our health-care system will escalate dramatically. At the same time, deaths from prescription pharmaceuticals will become even more common, as will a range of serious side effects. 
We have all seen how ridiculously low the standards for such advertisement are in the US. A drug appears on the market, we are flooded with commercials promising all kinds of benefits and mumbling over the side effects. Then another commercial appears, qualifying what was said in the first commercial. After a while, we hear that the drug has been pulled off the market and we can join a class-action suit against its makers. Now this mess is coming to Canada. 

What a shame.


Pen said...

Before the new regulations (in the US), a drug under x number of years old would have to have gone through x number of years of testing (and the FDA still requires this for approval). Now, drugs are being sold without FDA approval--and it's legal, because they've said so in their commercials.

No drugs should be on the market without FDA approval. It's insane that people in Canada are pushing for the same thing. Forget "modernization." It's not modern if more people are dead because of it. (The only exception to that rule, however sad, seems to be warfare.)

Rimi said...

"there is also a concerted effort on the part of pharmaceutical companies to legalize the advertisement of prescription drugs to consumers."

Nooooooo! When I was young, India only allowed birth-control pills to be advertised as a desirable medication for the masses. Plus over-the-counter tiger-balm type things that would clear up your sinuses. This year, I watched TV after nearly seven years, and realised they're advertising all kinds of vitamins supplements. Pills next, for sure.

But your first sentence was rather ironic, given the American mainstream's War on Drugs. I don't think most mainstream Americans realise -- and of course the media and their administration prefer it that way -- that the real war on drugs is long over, and they're the prisoners of war.

I honestly feel for those Americans, especially the young, who've been victim to the irrational and draconian anti-drug laws, whereby mere possession of acesories in some states can sentence a teenaged minor into prison till his twenties are worn and gone. Rapists get off earlier than that. And of course no mafia boss controlling the markets is ever sentenced (or effectively contained, even if sentenced). It's always the poor chaps who are doing themselves the most harm anyone can, anyway.

It's a sad world, and getting worse.

Rimi said...

Pen, that's a very apt comment about modern warfare.

Patrick said...

I became aware of this movement some time ago, but have lost track of what was going on and what direction it was taking.

Originally, the idea was to streamline approval processes in Canada. If the FDA or European Union equivalents approved a drug, then Canada would fast track its own approval. This would be based on the assumption that those international drug agencies are competent and thorough. If you don't believe that, then the legislation would never make sense. There would be reciprocity as well - drugs approved in Canada would then get fast track service in the US and Europe. This could be a boon for small Canadian drug companies, eliminating the enormous costs of duplicating approvals in multiple jurisdictions. For example, there was some very encouraging research about a decade ago into a bladder cancer pill - a very non-invasive alternative treatment. Unfortunately, that development died on the table; however, had it been successful, under this legislation, the company wouldn't have to choose whether to get the drug approved in Canada or the US. They could effectively do both.

As for the advertising aspect - Canadians spend a great deal of time watching American broadcasts. Of the top 20 shows in Canada at any time, 19 will be of US origin, likely on a US network. (Except for Quebec, which routinely has home grown shows as the most popular - I guess she is a distinct society). The commercials are already making it into the Canadian households. They are already "asking their doctor" about it. (Except for those of us who find the promo's morbidly amusing). Since we (Canada) can't stop what's being shown on US networks, there is little reason to rob Canadian broadcasters of those valuable advertising dollars. It's making the best out of a sub-par situation.

el said...

There are even official songs on the topic of medicalization: Edie Brickell's song "Pill"
The video is very funny, look:

In general, have you ever written which music you love in Russian and English, if any?