Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Making money out of unhappiness

Global drug corporations have been making make millions out of people’s unhappiness. Now it turns out that the drugs don’t work and the 40 million people taking anti-depressants like Prozac and Seroxat, and the doctors prescribing them, may have been duped.

Professor Irving Kirsch from the University of Hull, has brought together all the research into these drugs – including clinical trials that the manufacturers chose not to publish. He and his colleagues in the US and Canada found that in patients with mild to moderate depression, the effects are no better than taking a placebo. Only the most severely depressed patients seemed to do better, but even that may be because the placebo effect faded, rather than that the drug helped.

Drug companies insist they need their vast profits to invest in research. But in this case, as in many others, it is clear that it is only the profits that matter – the research has been suppressed.The drive for profits has other damaging side-effects. Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BCGI) report that hundreds of medicinal plant species, whose naturally-occurring chemicals make up the basis of over 50% of prescription drugs, are threatened with extinction.

BCGI warns of a global healthcare crisis if action is not taken to halt the decimation of plants, many of whose properties cannot be synthesised. For example the most widely-used cancer drug, Paclitaxel, extracted from the yew tree bark, has defied all attempts to recreate it in the laboratory. But the trees are running out fast. In China’s Yunnan province, once famous for yew forests, 80% of the trees were used up in just three years.

The high consumption approach to health feeds off, emphasises and invents ‘life-style symptoms’ to provide new markets for old and new drugs, whilst millions with treatable diseases like HIV-AIDS and malaria are left to die. Where depression had been rated at 50 cases per million of the population in the early 60s, by the 90s this had jumped to 100,000.

These remarkable changes coincided with the crisis in the market for minor tranquilisers such as Librium and Valium, prescribed for anxiety. As these widely used drugs were found to be highly addictive, it looked as if a substantial market was about to collapse. Hundreds of thousands of people took these drugs and the economic gains were enormous. Anxiety had to be remarketed and new agents found to respond to it. And this is where depression started to really take off as a diagnosis.

To live a happier, healthier life actually means living in opposition to the consumer culture and that is hard to do on your own. We need to join together to take some radical action. We need to make sustainable drugs research a part of socialised health care, taking control of the land and research away from the big corporations, in order to halt the destruction of plants and species. Neither plant species nor we ourselves can survive unless we overcome the alienating rule of the global corporations. We will all feel a lot better if we can have relationships with nature - and with each other - that are not mediated through a profit-making transaction.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

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