Shell Game

The theme of the December 6 issue of Newsweek magazine is “Health for Life” and the cover lists several articles about health, but who cares? The real action is in the ads. The “book,” as they say in the business, is 98 pages long and contains 15 full-page ads for pharmaceutical drugs. Promotions include treatments for Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis, chemotherapy-related anemia and Crohn’s disease. There are ads for prescription-strength antacids, nicotine patches, cholesterol fighters and Botox.

Less noticeable are ads for “dietary supplements,” which do not share the sophistication of the pharmaceutical ads. The ads seem low budget and designed to catch the eye of the senior citizen. The high end of this genre promises healthy bones, lower cholesterol and more energy. Moving swiftly downhill, a product promising relief from Irritable Bowel Syndrome screams “Feel the ADVANTAGE!” The ad for “Colon Cleanse” features a photo of a toilet and plunger and touts “a better way to unclog.” For the truly clogged, the same vendor makes “Super Colon Cleanse.”

A pitch for “Mane ’n Tail Hoofmaker” sports images of both horses and a pretty girl. Closer examination reveals the product is a cuticle-enhancing cream, “available at Walgreens.” One full-pager promotes both “Veromax Male Performance Enhancer” and “Sensuest Menopausal Sensual Balance.” The ad makes claims for both products and carries the disclaimer, “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”

There were more, but you get the picture — the folks at Newsweek accept ads for everything but snake oil as long as the buyer can get the Benjamins up front.

The most egregious display is a full-page ad in the center of the book, paid for by pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline. The ad shows three walnut shells labeled “Canada,” “Belize” and “China.” The headline reads: “Take a wild guess where your ‘Canadian’ medicine is actually coming from.”

Smaller copy says, “Drug importation is a game where no one wins. And if new laws pass, drugs that have not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will have a green light to start pouring into the U.S.” Funny GSK should mention the FDA, since it was FDA that took the arthritis drug Vioxx off the market only after it was shown to have strong links to strokes and heart attacks. It was the same FDA that engaged in character assassination of David Graham, associate director of the Office of Drug Safety after he told Congress FDA is incapable of protecting the public’s interests because it is too cozy with pharmaceutical companies – like GlaxoSmithKline. Next claim?

“The World Health Organization estimates that 10 percent of the world’s drug supply is counterfeit, and as high as 60 percent in some countries.” The 10 percent figure is accurate. For comparison, the W.H.O. says five to eight percent of pharmaceuticals in the U.S. are counterfeit. The line about “some countries” sounds ominous, though. “Some countries” like – Canada?

No, “some countries” like Cambodia. The PR folks at GSK dug up a W.H.O.- referenced study from 1999 which estimated that 60 percent of the anti-malarial drugs then in Cambodia were counterfeit. The outdated, nearly irrelevant number was thrown into the ad as a scare tactic.

“The FDA has said that if Congress opens the floodgates to importation, even the entire U.S. Army would not be big enough to carry out the inspections and take the other steps necessary to protect the public against drugs that are not safe or effective.” This sentence starts with the pharma-cronies at FDA, moves on to the fear-appealing image of “open floodgates” and then invokes the U.S. Army which is, as we know, stretched pretty thin already.

However much GlaxoSmithKline spends to tell you otherwise, drugs imported from Canada are safe. They’re safe because Canadian regulators do a better job of ensuring drug safety than their American counterparts at the Food and Drug Administration and because the Canadians are effective regulators, they don’t let pharmaceutical companies like GSK price-gouge the way the FDA does. That’s why people import drugs from Canada in the first place.

© Mark Floegel, 2004

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