The best democracy money can buy

Natural Gas Pipleline sign

How BC’s election was bought

by Joseph Roberts

 

• In the initial news reports about Alberta’s worst flooding in history, a number of government spokespeople noted it was “the worst but not the first” and that “it could have been much worse,” waxing on how resourceful Albertans were. In downtown Calgary, the energy capital was underwater and without power yet no one spoke the unspeakable: “climate change.” It was ironic that the climate change denying spin-doctors couldn’t go downtown because the “weird weather” had drowned their offices. And just what is contributing to the change in the weather? Did anyone mention “Kalgary’s Katrina?” Harper’s PMO immediately stated it would stop collateral damage by reinforcing the PR dikes surrounding the Tar Sands and pipeline plans. As usual, “controlling the message” and organizing “talking points” to stay on message, chanting, “It could have been much worse, it could have been much worse.” Well, if the current path of massively increasing Tar Sands exploitation continues unabated, it will get worse.

Next door in BC, there was a different kind of flood. It contributed to “the best democracy money can buy.”

BC is politically unique in many ways, perhaps because it’s the most westerly province and it was the last to be colonized. And BC has special, lenient campaign financing rules that result in surprisingly undemocratic election results. After the election, the completely mistaken political pundits back-pedalled furiously. They had quoted survey results that showed huge leads by the NDP of 20 to 28%, a lead that some had described as “unbeatable.” Excuses for their blundering projections were tossed out to repair the reputation of media election specialists and of course, these experts deflected blame to the leaders, the voters and the pollsters. Theories then emerged, such as the NDP voters were complacent and didn’t vote because they believed the NDP had a massive lead. Or Adrian Dix’s image lacked the obsequious media charisma of Christy Clark. Or my favourite, “The polls were wrong.” It’s akin to a line spoken in Canada Place at the doomed NDP victory gala where a woman comforted her distraught friend, saying, “Forget it and have a beer.” The election game was a gas over at the Wall Centre where the Liberals hosted their just-dodged-the-bullet celebration. Actually, the polls were right, but the influx of big money changed the numbers really fast.

Well folks, if the election did not work out the way you planned it, it was because you did not plan it. It was planned, financed and executed professionally by those in power and that power was not people power but rather money power: floods of money coupled with brilliant political operatives and massive TV advertising. Millions of dollars came from interests outside of BC and even outside of Canada, from the rich and powerful that wanted it their way. Whether they lived here or not was irrelevant; they could still affect the outcome with their cash.

But before going into the details of “who dun it?” let’s see how it was “legally” possible.

British Columbia is one of the only provinces in Canada that allows election campaign financing from out of province. So if a special interest group of petroleum producers calls a meeting in Alberta with 130 rich corporate buddies invested in oil exploration, extraction, pipelining, refining, selling or financing and these folks are asked to protect their assets and profits by donating to ensure they get a cheerleader premier in BC, well, from their perspective, it’s not a conspiracy; it’s just damn good business. Not really democratic, but they will make the sacrifice to get what they want. It’s like politicians willing to send other parents’ children to war in order to secure access to petroleum resources in other countries. For these financial backers, BC is another land.

And there is also the item of campaign funding coming from out of country. Yes, you heard that right. BC allows election campaign funding from outside of Canada! And in seemingly unbridled, liberal amounts. Money influences election results because money buys votes. For more facts on campaign financing scams and how to make elections more democratic, visit www.integrityBC.ca

So money can come from Norway to defend its lice and disease ridden fish farms or from China for coal exports. American and European bankers finance the further debt BC will descend into paying for the infrastructure, which can be later privatized and sold cheap to the inner circle after the public has been taxed. Odd how a former director of BC Rail who was around when it got sold, found a million or more dollars for Dix TV attack ads. You might have seen the one with the weather vane flip-flopping or the nasty piece about forging a signature. Well-planned and well-executed high-profile television ad campaigning. His nice sounding group, Citizens Concerned About BC, seemed to fold after the votes were cast. Do they still care? Or was it just a proxy prop throwing up dirt? Since the deed is done, maybe they are ”moving forward” with other agendas. Is BC Hydro the next in line for privatization?

Then there was Dix’s really unnecessary and unskilful Earth Day pronouncement regarding the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Did he know just who he was up against? This pipeline has curious backers. Richard Kinder (the Kinder of the two) came to fame previously with Enron. (Please watch the movie, Enron the Smartest Guys in the Room, for details.) Richard Kinder was also a huge fundraiser for George Bush Jr.’s campaign. Oil finds its own level. Richard was also involved in the purchase with Duke Energy of the then “not-to-be-sold” public BC Gas. After the public was discarded, it seems Richard kept the pipeline part of the deal and eventually the other part of BC Gas morphed into Fortis, a corporation with Caribbean connections (better tax laws maybe?). Fortis also bought up energy assets around North America such as in Newfoundland; maybe Newfoundland has similar campaign funding rules.

Gwyn Morgan, founder of EnCana, headquartered in Calgary (recently under a bit of flood water), now has a natural gas “It’s clean energy” cheerleader with his new premier Christy Clark. Gwyn is well connected through affiliations with Rio Tinto Alcan, Lafarge, HSBC, Fraser Institute and SNC-Lavalin. Prior to the election, Clark visited Calgary for a fundraising dinner and received support from corporate interests there. And the money keeps flooding in. Just after the election, Malaysian energy giant Petronas announced plans to spend $16 billion in new pipeline and processing infrastructure for a Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) port in Prince Rupert. Boy, that natural gas is so popular. It’s all so international with a few multinational billionaires pleased that their campaign investments funding paid off. Are these expenses tax deductible? Gwyn Morgan wrote about this ‘potential’ in the Globe and Mail on December 16, well before the election. He stated presciently, “The $6 billion acquisition by Petronas comes with plans for a $10 billion liquid natural gas project, raising its total investment in Canada to $16-billion.”

Big bucks for sure and the math matches. Now really, would anyone from outside of BC, outside of Canada, support buying TV ads to discredit the less cooperative NDP?

A small process detail change happened on the actual election day that hampered how the wee people keep track of who actually votes. In prior BC elections, the names of people who had just voted were released in real time in a continuous flow to the parties, which then monitored the names to get their vote out. If a party supporter hadn’t voted yet, they got a call or a ride to the polls. But that was changed for BC’s recent election. Instead of being continuous, data was limited to spurts every few hours as election day sped by. This contributed to making it more difficult to monitor the active voting lists and ultimately harder to follow who had already voted, which needs be known in order to get out the vote effectively.

And then there is the First Past the Post electoral system, great for top-down money and power controlled elections, but lousy for real democracy. This colonial system is an insult in this modern computer internet era. We are still being controlled by the old-fashioned, blunt electoral process of First Past the Post takes all. When you do the math, you see how FPTP kills campaign participation, voter turnout and public democracy. Ever feel that BC is still treated like a colony?

It is a painful irony that we are led to believe that in a democracy the majority rules. But whose rules define which majority it will be? When elections morph into the minority rules, the majority are left unrepresented through FPTP. This electoral process is inherently disproportional. Some eligible voters get no representation while other get far too much. As in Animal Farm, we are all equal but some are more equal than others. It helps if you own an oil company or bank to get the kind of government you want. If 50% of eligible voters cast a ballot and it is a fairly close election, the winning 50% + of the riding gets all the power with only about 25% of the votes. With such an electoral system, in not uncommon for 70 to 80% of the electoral to be unrepresented, or, another way to say it is that they are represented by MLAs (or MPs) who don’t represent their vote or wishes. Hence, an undemocratic reality parading as democracy.

Some rich people believe government is just too useful for it to be left up to we the people. And some industrialists believe constitutional rights and habeas corpus are optional luxuries. And wars are for the poor to fight and the super rich to profit from.

But with the recent election and future floods to come, it’s time to wake up.

“The owners of this country know the truth: It’s called the American (Canadian) dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

– George Carlin

photo © Stuart Meade

Diabetes mongering

a dangerous deception

DRUG BUST by Alan Cassels

• The people’s briefing note on prescription drugs
Portrait of columnist Alan Cassels

Have you been told you have diabetes? Has someone in your family – possibly an elderly parent – been given a label of ‘pre- diabetes?’ Or maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of insulin or diabetes drugs?

If so, you might be surprised to learn the diabetes industry is shamelessly trying to get everyone – especially older people who are otherwise healthy – and their doctors to start worrying about this disease. Their ominous message is that an aging, sedentary population of people, who eat poorly or don’t get enough exercise, is set to become part of a diabetes epidemic of mammoth proportions where up to 10 percent of the population live with the disease. Right now, nearly 300 million people worldwide are said to have the disease. The Canadian Diabetes Association (CDA) notes there are currently almost nine million Canadians with diabetes or prediabetes and they say that by 2020, 9.9% of Canadians will be living with diabetes.

That’s an incredulous number – nearly 10 percent of the population will have a ‘disease’ that is largely, but not completely, altered by diet and exercise? Yet an older and slower society explains only part of it. What you won’t hear from those in the diabetes industry is that the significant rise in projected diabetics is more likely due to skilful diabetes mongering than anything else. Elevations in blood sugar are used to terrify the population into checking and altering their levels in order to avoid the risks of blindness, amputations and the cardiovascular disease (heart attacks and so on) that could result. The CDA recommends screening healthy people over 40 for the disease, a recommendation that is neither supported by evidence, nor promoted by screening experts who aren’t working for or supported by the pharmaceutical industry.

This saga is a suspense driven narrative with many plot twists, but the easiest way to unravel it is by following the money. The pharmaceutical industry, for at least the last decade, has been very heavily investing in diabetes research, banking on the fact that it’s relatively easy to sell people on the idea they need to alter their blood sugars with insulin or drugs. In addition to investing in drug research, they’ve also been very heavily investing in marketing rhetoric, playing the refrain that uncontrolled blood sugars (like high cholesterol or high blood pressure) is a road to the grave, ignored at your peril. The industry gives liberally to those organizations that see their task as educating about diabetes. They fund the experts who educate doctors about the disease and lobby governments to pay for diabetes products for all people, even if those drugs are more dangerous than the disease itself, which is what we saw with former blockbuster Avandia, removed from the market in Europe and rarely prescribed here.

You can’t talk about diabetes without talking about insulin, which helps glucose (a type of sugar) enter your cells. If your pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin, you’ve got type 1 diabetes, but if your body can’t respond to the body’s production of insulin, it’s type II diabetes, in which glucose levels in your body rise.

You should never ignore the signals of extreme thirst, excessive urination or unexplained weight loss, which could be a sign of diabetes. Yet if you feel fine and are sent for a blood test and then told you are diabetic or ‘pre-diabetic,’ do you really have to follow the paradigm of “intensive glucose control?” That’s the name of the game where checking and rechecking your blood sugars and using drugs and insulin starts to become a central part of your life.

That paradigm, I’m sad to report, rests on a major deception. Despite studies in tens of thousands of patients, “intensive glucose control” does very little to alter the rates at which people go on to develop worrisome diabetes complications such as blindness or the need for amputations. The deception is that by focusing on the blood sugar, the ‘surrogate’ marker, we forget that what’s most important is the ‘hard endpoint,’ the overall health of the patient.

Dr. John Yudkin, Emeritus Professor of Medicine and former director of the International Health and Medical Education Centre at University College London, was in Vancouver last month talking about this subject. He wrote a fascinating article published in BMJ (British Medical Journal), pointing out how foolish this obsession with surrogates can be. (Google “The Idolatry of the Surrogate.”)

In relation to diabetes, he wrote, “Glycemia’s reputation as a valid surrogate end point has been tarnished by studies showing that intensified glucose lowering does not reduce cardiovascular disease.” He’s among other critics who say that drugs or insulins may alter a surrogate marker (the level of your blood sugar), but have no effect on whether people live longer or healthier lives.

Worse yet, it is possible to alter a surrogate point and cause other forms of illness. That’s what we saw with Avandia, which could alter your blood sugars but was linked to heart failure (as well as liver damage, weight gain and anaemia.) Yudkin explains that the “hard” end points generally show much smaller responses to interventions than surrogate markers [and so] many of the widely accepted strategies for diabetes may be based on artificially inflated expectations.”

So if altering blood sugars with drugs is such a potential boondoggle, why have the newest and most heavily marketed drugs for type 2 diabetes been doing so well? These include the drugs exenatide (Byetta), liraglutide (Victoza), sitagliptin (Januvia), saxagliptin (Onglyza) and linagliptin (Tradjenta), which stimulate the body to produce insulin and hence alter your blood sugars. The market leader in the class is sitagliptin (Januvia), living in blockbuster territory –with sales at $4 billion per year – even with growing concerns that there are no long-term effectiveness data, no data to prove the drugs prevent death or cardiovascular disease and concerns they cause adverse effects, primarily to the pancreas.

A report last month in BMJ cited two of these new drugs, noting that those called DPP-4 inhibitors –Sitagliptin (Januvia) and saxagliptin (Onglyza) – are now being used by millions of patients and have potentially harmful effects. As they face lawsuits over patients who say they were harmed, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) and the European Medicines Agency are looking closer to see if the drugs could lead to pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer.

Adverse effects seen in post-market reports are controversial because you can never be really sure if the drug or something else caused them. The US drug watchdog group, Quarterwatch, examined adverse drug reports made to the FDA over 12 months ending in June of 2012 and found all five of these agents showed a “marked signal for reported pancreatitis,” compared to other antidiabetes drugs, including over 100 reported cases of pancreatic cancer among the five.

BMJ identifies a recurrent theme we’ve seen with antidiabetes drugs, stating, “The story is familiar. A new class of antidiabetes agents is rushed to market and widely promoted in the absence of any evidence of long-term beneficial outcomes. Evidence of harm accumulates, but is vigorously discounted.”

Let me add to that: high blood sugars are paraded as the enemy that needs to be brought down at all costs, despite the ‘collateral damage’ that may be inflicted on other organs in doing so. Intensive monitoring of blood glucose is very good for the drug and insulin industry, but not so good perhaps for your pancreas, which you can’t live without.

Closer to home, it appears the Therapeutics Initiative at UBC, which has been providing physicians an independent voice on drugs for the past 20 years, has finally been dealt its deathblow. The administration at UBC, where drug research money abounds and where the Dean of Medicine, incredibly, sits on the board of LifeSciences British Columbia, the main lobby group for BC’s pharmaceutical industry, doesn’t seem to be too worried about our pancreases.

They are doing the Liberals’ bidding and letting the TI die a silent death, even as TI would have warned our doctors of the dangers of these new drugs. It’s a shame that the one homegrown solution to save us from the dangers of new drugs may have been the worst casualty of the last election.

Alan Cassels is the author of Seeking Sickness: Medical Screening and the Misguided Hunt for Disease. Follow him on Twitter @AKECassels or www.alancassels.com

Why WikiLeaks was created

Free Assage

This article has been adapted from a conversation that took place during a secret five-hour meeting between WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, under house arrest in rural UK at the time, and Google CEO Eric Schmidt. The following individuals were also in attendance: Jared Cohen, former member of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff and advisor to Condoleezza Rice and later Hillary Clinton; Scott Malcomson, former director of speechwriting for Ambassador Susan Rice at the U.S. State Department and current Communications Director at the International Crisis Group; and Lisa Shields, vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations.


Schmidt and Cohen requested the meeting, they said, to discuss ideas for their new book The New Digital Age, published in April of 2013. This is part one of a series that will explore and expose the nature of media, publishing, the internet, political power and the people who are really being protected by government classified materials vs. open communications. These courageous whistleblowers are committed to getting the truth out without either propaganda or spin, by releasing hidden source documents for citizens to read and consider. Much of what WikiLeaks releases is material that has been intentionally denied from public view. The conversation gets more interesting as you follow the threads. Please honour these individuals by visiting their website at wikileaks.org and reading the source material firsthand.

I wanted there to be more just acts and fewer unjust acts. And one can sort of say, well what are your philosophical axioms for this? And I say I do not need to consider them. This is simply my temperament. And it is an axiom because it is that way. And so that avoids, then, getting into further unhelpful discussions about why you want to do something. It is enough that I do. So in considering how unjust acts are caused and what tends to promote them and what promotes just acts I saw that human beings are basically invariant. That is, that their inclinations and biological temperament haven’t changed much over thousands of years and so therefore the only playing field left is what do they have? And what do they know? And “have” is something that is fairly hard to influence so that is what resources do they have at their disposal? And how much energy they can harness and what are the supplies and so on?

But what they know can be affected in a nonlinear way because when one person conveys information to another they can convey on to another and another and so on in a way that [is] nonlinear and so you can affect a lot of people with a small amount of information. And therefore you can change the behaviour of many people with a small amount of information. So the question then arises as to what kinds of information will produce behaviour which is just? And disincentivize behaviour which is unjust? So all around the world there are people observing different parts of what is happening to them locally. And there are other people that are receiving information that they haven’t observed first hand. And in the middle there are people who are involved in moving information from the observers to the people who will act on information. These are three separate problems that are all coupled together. I felt that there was a difficulty in taking observations and putting them in an efficient way into a distribution system which could then get this information to people who could act upon it. And so you can argue that companies like Google are involved, for example, in this “middle” business of taking… of moving information from people who have it to people who want it. The problem I saw was that this first step was crippled. And often the last step as well when it came to information that governments were inclined to censor.

We can look at this whole process as the Fourth Estate. Or just as produced by the Fourth Estate. And so you have some kind of… pipeline… So I have this description which is… partly derived from my experiences in quantum mechanics about looking at the flow of particular types of information which will effect some change in the end. The bottleneck to me appeared to me to be primarily in the acquisition of information that would go on to produce changes that were just. In a Fourth Estate context the people who acquire information are sources. People who work information and distribute it are journalists and publishers. And people who act on it… is everyone. So that’s a high level construct, but of course it then comes down to practically how do you engineer a system that solves that problem? And not just a technical system, but a total system. So WikiLeaks was and is an attempt – although still very young – at a total system.

… Not for all three phases, but for the political component, the philosophical component and the engineering component in pushing out [the] first component… Technically, that means anonymizing and protecting sources in a wide variety of ways. Politically, that also means protecting them politically and incentivizing them in a political manner. Saying that their work is valuable and encouraging people to take it up. And then there is also a legal aspect. What are the best laws that can be created in the best jurisdictions to operate this sort of stuff from? And practical everyday legal defense. On the technical front, our first prototype was engineered for a very adverse situation where publishing would be extremely difficult and our only effective defense in publishing would be anonymity. Where sourcing is difficult. As it still currently is for the national security sector. And where internally we had a very small and completely trusted team.

Making the primary source material public is what I mean by publishing. It was clear to me that all over the world publishing is a problem… Whether that is through self-censorship or overt censorship.

It’s mostly self-censorship. In fact, I would say it’s probably the most significant one, historically, has been economic censorship. Where it is simply not profitable to publish something. There is no market for it. I describe [it] as a censorship pyramid. It’s quite interesting. So on the top of the pyramid there are the murders of journalists and publishers. And the next level there is political attacks on journalists and publishers. So you think, what is a legal attack? A legal attack is simply a delayed use of coercive force.

Which doesn’t necessarily result in murder but may result in incarceration or asset seizure. So the next level down, and remember the volume…of the pyramid! The volume of the pyramid increases significantly as you go down from the peak. And in this example that means that the number of acts of censorship also increases as you go down. So there are very few people who are murdered, there are a few people who suffer legal…there [are] a few…public legal attacks on individuals and corporations and then at the next level there is a tremendous amount of self-censorship and this self-censorship occurs in part because people don’t want to move up into the upper parts of the pyramid. They don’t want to come to legal attacks or uses of coercive force. But they also don’t want to be killed.

So that discourages people… and then there are other forms of self-censorship that are concerned about missing out on business deals, missing out on promotions and those are even more significant because they are lower down the pyramid. At the very bottom – which is the largest volume – is all those people who cannot read, do not have access to print, do not have access to fast communications or where there is no profitable industry in providing that. Okay. So we decided to deal with the top of this censorship pyramid. The top two sections: the threats of violence, and the delayed threats of violence that are represented by the legal system. In some ways, that is the hardest case. In some ways, it is the easiest case. It is the easiest case because it is clearcut when things are being censored there, or not. It is also the easiest because the volume of censorship is relatively small even if the per event significance is very high…

Although of course I had some previous political connections of my own from other activities, we didn’t have that many friends. We didn’t have significant political allies. And we didn’t have a worldwide audience that was looking to see how we were doing. So we took the position that we would need to have a publishing system whose only defense was anonymity. That is, it had no financial defense, it had no legal defense and it had no political defense. Its defenses were purely technical. So that meant a system that was distributed at its front with many domain names and a fast ability to change those domain names. A caching system, and at the back tunnelling through the Tor network to hidden servers…

How WikiLeaks did it

We had sacrificial front nodes that were very fast to set up, very quick to set up, that we nonetheless did place in relatively hospitable jurisdictions like Sweden. And those fast front nodes were fast because there was… very few hops between them and the people reading them. That’s… an important lesson that I had learned from things that I did before, that being a Sherman tank is not always an advantage, because you are not manoeuvrable and you are slow. A lot of the protection for publishers is publishing quickly. You get the information out quickly; it is very well read [and] the incentive for people to go after you in relation to that specific piece of information is actually zero. There may be incentives for them to go after you to teach a lesson to other people who might defy their authority or teach a future lesson to your organization about defiance of authority.

wikileaks.org

photo © Thomas Dutour

Great cities have great public transit

Portrait of David Suzuki

SCIENCE MATTERS by David Suzuki

• What makes a city great? New York City is world class and not just because it’s a driver of global finance and a hotbed of cultural innovation; it’s also known for its green spaces, like Central Park and the award-winning High Line.

San Francisco is celebrated for its narrow streets, compact lots and historic buildings. These contribute to the city’s old-world charm, but they’re also the building blocks of a more sustainable urban form. They facilitate densification and decrease the cost of energy and transportation for businesses while improving walkability.

When it comes to urban sustainability, cities in the US and Canada are employing innovative programs and policies to improve the health and well-being of residents and their local environments, like reducing waste and improving recycling (Los Angeles), containing urban sprawl (Portland), conserving water (Calgary) and passing policies to combat climate change (Toronto).

But most cities in Canada and the US are lacking in infrastructure to move millions of people safely and affordably. With some notable exceptions, such as Vancouver and Calgary, no successful rapid transit infrastructure projects have been built in Canadian cities for decades. A recent survey of urban experts and other “city-builders” across Canada concluded the abysmal state of public transit is the Achilles’ heel of urban sustainability and is holding many cities back from achieving greatness.

Toronto residents spend more time battling congestion to get to and from work than in any other city in North America. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as successive governments have failed to sustain and expand transit systems even though the region has grown by about 100,000 new residents a year. Toronto now scores 15th of 21 on per capita investment in public transit among large global cities – well behind sixth-placed New York City, which spends twice as much.

Fortunately, politicians are starting to respond. Ontario’s government plans to spend billions to expand its regional transit system in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area under a plan called the Big Move. It’s also looking at new financing tools to ensure funding levels are adequate and continue into the future. But before we spend enormous amounts on improvements, we need to ensure projects contribute to a region-wide rapid transit network using the latest technology and adhering to the highest sustainability standards. They should also move the most people in the most cost-effective way.

That’s why a proposal to use diesel trains for the Air-Rail-Link plan to connect downtown Toronto with its international airport in Mississauga is concerning. A rapid transit link with the airport is long overdue, but heavy diesel trains emit particulates and other contaminants, including known carcinogens. The proposed rail line would be close to dozens of schools and daycare centres, several long-term care facilities and a chronic respiratory care hospital.

Numerous experts, including Toronto’s Medical Health Officer, have urged the Ontario government to abandon its diesel plan in favour of electric trains that could be better integrated into a region-wide rapid transit network.

Vancouver, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and New York City have consistently ranked among the most liveable cities on the continent, in part because they take the environment into account for planning decisions. They all have world-class public transit systems that move residents in a safe, affordable and sustainable way. It’s time for Toronto and its suburbs to do the same. Effective transit and transportation solutions can spur economic productivity, protect the environment and improve quality of life.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Ontario and Northern Canada Director General Faisal Moola. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

Hospital care and fare

NUTRISPEAK by Vesanto Melina MS, RD

Portrait of Vesanto Melina
• When people talk about hospital food, they don’t often use the adjective “good.” In fact, I don’t recall ever hearing those three words in combination. However, I recently had a stay at UBC hospital for hip replacement surgery and I had a change of mind.

Overall, I was blown away by my thoroughly positive experience and the expertise of the health professionals and staff. The orthopaedic surgeons were a very skilled and capable team. The anaesthetist and those who determine or administer pain medications were extremely good at their jobs. I’m not much of a person for pills, but the nurses and others sure know what they are doing. I had heard some scare stories regarding hospital induced infections, but staff took such care regarding sanitation that my fears were allayed. The physio and occupational therapists provided powerfully effective follow-up tips and two weeks after my surgery I could walk around at home without crutches.

On the food front, although I had requested vegan meals, I was uncertain whether I would need to rely on my partner or the occasional visitor to bring me items from the outside. To my surprise, the standard vegan meals on the menu were both tasty and nutritious. The lunch and supper rotation included baked beans, curried rice with beans, curried chickpeas, a falafel plate, a hummus salad plate, lentil stew casserole, pan fried tofu, vegetable jambalaya and vegetarian chili, pasta, stew, wieners and beans and a veggie burger. Side salads with vegan dressings were available. Dessert was fresh or canned fruit. The breakfast tray arrived with some combination of Cream of Wheat, oatmeal or dry cereals along with toast with peanut butter, soymilk, fruit juice and prunes. With this menu, there is zero cholesterol and trans fat, with little saturated fat, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes and obesity. And one can expect to live longer. Similar menu rotations have recently been put in place or are evolving at Vancouver General Hospital and St. Paul’s.

Visiting Vancouver General Hospital and the Gordon and Leslie Diamond Health Care Centre at various times as an outpatient, I was further impressed by the quality of healthy food available in hospital cafeterias and other food service outlets.

I chose to write on this topic because I am aware of how different my experience could have been if I lived in a different country. For example, if I were Nepalese with joint problems – the Achilles heel of my family – and I had decreased mobility, the boundaries of my life would shrink, access to health care could be extremely limited and life would be far shorter. If I were American, an operation and hospital stay of this type could cost between $45,000 and $90,000. I could choose to fly to India or Thailand for the surgery and pay a pay a tenth of that price (plus airfare), but I would have less confidence in the sanitation.

So this month’s column is really an expression of my gratitude for what we have in our fine country and to say thank you to our health professionals and healthcare and food service workers. We are blessed.

Vesanto Melina is a registered dietitian and author of numerous classics about vegan nutrition and food, with 650,000 books in print. Her most recent book, released this month, is the new Becoming Vegan: Express Edition, co-authored with B. Davis. (The Book Publishing Co.) www.facebook.com/Nutrispeak

Decoding drug lobbyist rhetoric

DRUG BUST by Alan Cassels

• The people’s briefing note on prescription drugs
Portrait of columnist Alan Cassels

Dear new member of the Legislative Assembly:

• You’re likely facing a steep learning curve in getting used to your new job so I’d like to offer you some translation help. For free.

You can expect that, just as you are settling into your new office in the Legislature and getting comfortable running the government, a lobbyist working in the “Life Sciences” field – someone representing drug giants like Pfizer, Merck or GSK (GlaxoSmithKline) – will call you up and ask for a little meeting.

As an MLA, you are ultimately responsible to taxpayers for making many decisions, including decisions about spending about $1.2 billion per year of public money on drug products. Many people want to offer their services to help you with those decisions. For example, the GSK rep might come by to tell you how their drugs and vaccines “contribute benefits to patients and value to the sustainability of the healthcare system,” while the guy from Janssen will want to work with you to “identify treatment gaps and focus on ways through partnerships to improve health outcomes for British Columbians.” And then there’s the government relations person from Pfizer who will check in to brief you on “the pharmaceutical industry and/or Pfizer Canada’s business activities in the province, as well as learn more about your health policy priorities.” I know there are dozens of lobbyists who will start making these appointments to see you because that’s what they do. Such visits are recorded in the BC Government Lobbyist Registry and these quotes are directly from the registry.

The lobbyists will want to convince you of one thing: that, like you, they are there to serve the people of British Columbia and they want to make sure BC citizens have access to innovative, new medicines.

Please don’t be fooled. Despite the enticement of the pitch and the warm-n-fuzzy feeling that you and your new lobbyist friends are on the same team, I assure you, you are not. Your bosses (unlike theirs) are the electorate. Their bosses occupy corner offices in glass towers in Montreal or Mississauga, the franchise headquarters of Canada’s multinational drug industry and the Canadian bosses take orders from places like New York (Pfizer), London (GSK) and Whitehouse Station, New Jersey (Merck). You need to remember this fact when well-heeled lobbyists show up or when disease or consumer lobby groups ask to meet with you. If they are living partly off the avails of the “life sciences” industry (and many of them are), they will ultimately be working to please the CEOs in New York, London and New Jersey and not your voters.

So to help you in your new job, I’ve devised a handy interpretive codebook that may guide you through your discussions. Here are a few common topics you might face:


Investments in new medications

They will say: “Investing in new medications and vaccines improves our communities – because health innovations help save lives.”

Code for: “If you don’t agree to pay for the latest, greatest drugs produced by our labs, BC citizens will suffer.”

Only on rare occasions do the newest medicines and vaccines save lives and, at best, one in 10 new medicines offers significant benefits over and above existing drugs. But most independent research would indicate the additional costs needed to cover newer drugs –sometimes hundreds of times more than existing treatments – are almost never worth the added costs. But more importantly, being new they lack important safety data. York University professor Dr. Joel Lexchin has studied this situation intensely and says, “Almost 20% of new drugs approved in Canada between 1995 and 2010 were dangerous enough that they either acquired a serious safety warning or had to be removed from the market. Half of these serious safety problems turned up in the first three years after the drug was approved.” In other words, don’t set yourself up for being Vioxxed!


Investments in innovation

They will say: “Health innovation creates jobs, generates economic activity and eases the burden on our healthcare system…”

Code for: “Drug company research is a great way to create all those high-paying, high-tech jobs that feed the “knowledge economy.”

The implied threat is if you don’t pour more government money into BC’s universities and drug research labs, the companies will pull up stakes and move elsewhere. What they won’t tell you is that BC, with 13% of Canada’s population, only gets about 6% of the national expenditures on pharmaceutical research and development. In other words, the drug companies are spending less than half of what they should on generating sexy, high-paying jobs so for them to expect you to put up even more public money to subsidize the jobs that they are promising is a pretty bold, yet hypocritical statement.


Restrictive drug coverage

When they say: “BC PharmaCare’s ‘historical, and current approaches to listing decisions in BC have been unreasonably restrictive.’”

Code for: A “listing decision” is whether the government decides to pay for a treatment or not.

Historically, the BC government, acting under the influence of science and evidence, has been a bit tight-fisted and refused to pay for some so-called new and innovative drugs, like Vioxx. What they won’t tell you is that insisting on evidence and good independent drug evaluation (like those produced by groups like the Therapeutics Initiative) is not unreasonable, but an approach that has saved lives and money.


Transparency of drug coverage decisions

When they say: “We want ‘improved transparency and the enhanced deployment of a wider array of peer-respected specialized expertise.’”

Code for: “We want scientists that we have funded at the table when it comes to discussing the evidence around our wonderful, new drugs. If you don’t allow us to have our own people on the committees that make drug decisions, how will we be able to manipulate you into our way of thinking? We demand ‘transparency’ because that’s the best way we’ll be able to bias the process. Oh, so you have rules against conflicts-of-interest? How quaint.”


Disease management initiatives

When they say: “Innovative drug manufacturers have developed, or have been involved with, a number of disease management initiatives.”

Code for: “Look, don’t you want us to come in and provide a free diabetes or osteoporosis or Alzheimer’s program using our evidence? Then you better let us do things our way, which means putting our industry-friendly experts in place and engaging our industry-friendly disease groups so that they will work towards our marketing objectives. Basically, if you are nice to us, we’ll bring our programs to BC.”


Good corporate citizenship

They will say: “We are guided by a code of ethical practices, which has been a ‘tangible demonstration of Canada’s research-based pharmaceutical companies’ commitment to a relationship based on trust, openness and transparency with health-care providers.’”

Code for: (sotto voce) “Let’s not talk about our rap sheet, ok? Even though only four of the world’s biggest drug companies (GSK, Pfizer, Eli Lilly and Schering-Plough) have together paid some $10.5 billion (US) in financial penalties to the US government over the past two decades, that doesn’t mean we’re criminals.”

According to US consumer group Public Citizen, “The pharmaceutical industry now tops not only the defense industry, but all other industries in the total amount of fraud payments for actions against the [US] federal government under the False Claims Act.”

Look out for those watchwords: “partnership,” “transparency,” “shared goals” and “engagement.” These are loaded words, which imply you as an MLA and he (or she) as a drug lobbyist are on the same team. You are not.

Remember this: money has the ability to pollute even the most noble aspects of healthcare. Lobbyists provide a valuable service: to convey to you what the CEOs of multinational drug companies want. Remember that and use it to your advantage.

Good luck. You’ll need it.

Alan Cassels is the author of Seeking Sickness: Medical Screening and the Misguided Hunt for Disease. Follow him on Twitter @AKECassels or www.alancassels.com

Muzzling scientists

Portrait of David Suzuki

SCIENCE MATTERS by David Suzuki

• Access to information is a basic foundation of democracy. Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms also gives us “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.”

We must protect these rights. As we alter the chemical, physical and biological properties of the biosphere, we face an increasingly uncertain future and the best information we have to guide us comes from science. That scientists – and even librarians – are speaking out against what appear to be increasing efforts to suppress information shows we have cause for concern. The situation has become so alarming that Canada’s Information Commissioner is investigating seven government departments in response to a complaint that they’re “muzzling” scientists.

The submission from the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre and Democracy Watch alleges “the federal government is preventing the media and the Canadian public from speaking to government scientists for news stories – especially when the scientists’ research or point of view runs counter to current Government policies… The complaint and investigation follow numerous similar charges from scientists and organizations… Hundreds of scientists marched on Parliament Hill last July to mark “the death of evidence.”

The list of actions prompting these grievances is long. It includes shutting the world renowned Experimental Lakes Area, axing the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, eliminating funding for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences and prohibiting federal scientists from speaking about research on subjects ranging from ozone to climate change to salmon.

All of this has been taking place as the federal government guts environmental laws and cuts funding for environmental departments through its omnibus budget bills… The government appears determined to challenge any information, person or organization that could stand in the way of its plans for rapid tar sands expansion and transport and sale of raw resources as quickly as possible to any country with money.

The results have been astounding. An Environment Canada document leaked to the Climate Action Network states, “Media coverage of climate change science, our most high-profile issue, has been reduced by over 80 percent.”

In the environmental movement, we’ve become accustomed to attacks and attempts by government and its proxies to silence us. We’ve been called everything from “radicals” to “un-Canadian” to “money-launderers.” Federal Treasury Board President Tony Clement even blamed the David Suzuki Foundation and me for opposition to the proposed TransCanada west-to-east pipeline, a project we have yet to say a word about!

In a truly open and democratic society, ideas, policies and legislation are exposed to scrutiny, debate and criticism. Information is shared freely. Governments support research that makes the country stronger by ensuring its policies are in the best interests of the people.

Countries where governments hold a tight rein on information, shut down or stifle research that runs counter to their priorities and demonize and attack opponents are never good places to live. We have to make sure Canada doesn’t become one.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation communications manager Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

DOXA occupy world brain

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

Occupy-The Movie
Occupy-The Movie: the emotional roller coaster of being an occupier

• This year’s DOXA Festival (doxafestival.ca), our version of Hot Docs, bristles with ideas and provocations over its 10 days in May. If the five films I’ve seen are representative of the whole program, expect some intelligent and well-crafted documentaries coming your way, along with lively Q&As and discussions with filmmakers and other audience members.

The festival opens with Corey Ogilvie’s Occupy: The Movie, a thorough and at times poetic look at the US “spring” in the fall of 2011. Ogilvie primarily focuses on Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, looking at how casino banking and bailouts created conditions for the popular upsurge. As well as a host of occupiers talking about the emotional roller-coaster of the Occupation as it swelled and then dispersed, there are some astute observations from the likes of Aaron Black, Chris Hedges and Adbusters editor Kalle Lasn on tactics (“reformers” vs. “revolutionaries”) and how such a popular, social movement can sustain itself.

Another DOXA highlight is Mike Freedman’s ambitious, future-looking Critical Mass, which extrapolates theories about human over-population and resource depletion based on renowned ethologist John Calhoun’s ‘60s and ‘70s mice colony experiments. In a documentary brimming with sustainability thinkers such as ecological footprint inventors professor Bill Rees and Mathis Wackernagel (and others from the Ecological Footprint Network), Freedman paints a dystopian trajectory for the human species as it explodes by the billions. I found it difficult to accept some of the conclusions, but with its nifty info-graphics, it makes for stimulating viewing. One to watch with a crowd.

Where did our urban rivers go? Many of them are beneath you, under the concrete, as Lost Rivers reveals as it follows “drainers” down the manhole to re-discover ancient rivers and tributaries around the world, from Brescia in Italy to London in the UK. Caroline Bâcle’s visually attractive film illustrates the revitalizing qualities of daylighting covered-over rivers and plots a culture shift in urban design toward working with, rather than fighting, nature – although apparently too late to prevent old-style industrial storm water solutions for Garrison Creek in Toronto.

The globe-trotting Google and the World Brain platforms the debate around the Big G’s practices, in particular its opaque dealings with libraries and authors over its giant global library, apparently part of a plan to create an all-encompassing artificial intelligence. High-tech evangelicalism crashes against digital-age angst as the doc explores issues around copyright (“archaic and unproductive” or a way of remembering the efforts of authors?), privacy, commercialization of knowledge and quality control (Google Book Search is likened to a “meat grinder”).

Political junkies will relish Our Nixon, a sympathetic and intimate behind-the-scenes look at the staff close to the former president, caught on scratchy newsreel footage and the warm glow of Super-8 home movies. Mashed together with famously redacted secret audio tapes from the White House and a swinging soundtrack, it’s a unique and fascinating – if somewhat elliptical – insider account of the ill-fated presidency.

Aside from DOXA, there’s Michael McGowan’s tender and gently humorous romance Still Mine, set in a bucolic-like New Brunswick. Great performances by James Cromwell as a cantankerous old man whose projects are beset by red tape and Geneviève Bujold as the love of his life bring a rare dignity and spiritedness to the ageing process.

DOXA runs May 3-12 in Vancouver.

Robert Alstead is making the documentary Running on Climate (www.runningonclimate.com).

Scandal taints BC Ministry of Health’s Pharmaceutical Services Division

Ministry of Health carpet-bombs drug safety monitoring

Ministry of Health carpet-bombs drug safety monitoring

The tragedy of Roderick MacIsaa

by Alan Cassels image by Anthony Freda

Unanswered questions around the death of a Ministry of Health employee might hold some clues to the biggest scandal to ever hit BC’s drug evaluation system.

Linda Kayfish’s voice weighs heavily with exasperation as she speaks to me about her brother Rod. He was the only family member she had left and he died in December 2012, three months after having been fired from a co-op position at the BC Ministry of Health.

Last summer, he and other employees involved in evaluating drug safety in the BC Ministry of Health were told of an investigation into alleged wrongdoings. Since then, a massive inferno of scandal and mystery has engulfed the Ministry of Health Pharmaceutical Services Division (PSD). The death of Roderick MacIsaac is just one more inexplicable flame.

“Why do we have to wait so long?” Linda asks me, frustrated because there are no answers and because it’s clear to her no one is in any hurry to supply them.

This story involves a dizzying array of actors: The BC Coroner, the RCMP and the Privacy Commissioner. They are all part of “ongoing investigations” along with the BC Ministry of Health, which is facing a series of lawsuits and grievances from employees who are suing the organization for wrongful dismissal and defamation.

So far, nine people have lost their jobs – most of them terminated suddenly – and several contractors have had their contracts cancelled with no explanation. A number of important drug safety evaluations have been halted, studies that were trying to determine whether a number of widely prescribed and very profitable drugs for the companies that make them are harming us.

It all started on March 28, 2012, when a complaint was filed with the BC’s Auditor General about the way contracts were being awarded and how research was being conducted within PSD.

PSD oversees annual spending of $1.2 billion on pharmaceuticals, the fastest growing of all areas of health spending. This growth is fuelled by unrelenting pressure from pharmaceutical companies that strive to ensure their products are generously covered by the public purse.

Roderick MacIsaac was a student at the University of Victoria working on a PhD in Public Administration and examining the safety of a handful of drugs used to help people quit smoking. One of the drugs he was studying was the controversial drug Champix, which carries serious warnings of risks of heart attacks and psychiatric effects. Rod worked with a small evaluation unit within PSD, a handful of economists and data analysts under the direction of two academic researchers who helped them design and facilitate drug evaluations. In the course of this work, the evaluations could show that some medications are not doing what their manufacturers’ claim and may, in fact, be shown to be killing or injuring people.

The Ministry of Health created a team of government investigators to try to “examine financial controls, contracting, data management and employee/contractor relationships.” By mid-summer, the PSD’s head, Assistant Deputy Minister Barbara Walman, suspended without pay a handful of employees alleging misuse of health data and contracting methods, but there were no specifics. Other drug evaluators had their data access suspended and were left in limbo.

All drug safety evaluations carried out by the UBC-based Therapeutics Initiative (TI) were halted. The TI has been an independent voice on pharmaceuticals since the mid 1990s, with an international reputation for its meticulous and thorough drug reviews. Because it couldn’t be bamboozled by the pharmaceutical industry, over time, the TI became Big Pharma’s Enemy #1 in BC. Five years ago, the reigning Liberal government created a “Pharmaceutical Task Force” to review the activities of Pharmacare and stacked it with people with pharmaceutical industry ties. Its main conclusion? Dismantle the TI. See www.health.gov.bc.ca/library/publications/year/ 2008/PharmaceuticalTaskForceReport.pdf

The TI’s budget was subsequently cut, its influence reduced and the important work of advising government on the value and safety of new drugs was severely curtailed.

On September 6, 2012, the day after being appointed by the Premier as the new Minister of Health, Dr. Margaret MacDiarmid and her Deputy Minister Graham Whitmarsh called a press conference in the Legislature. They announced that four employees had just been fired and three more were suspended without pay. Once again, no specific reasons were given but media reports which followed painted a picture suggesting the personal health data of millions of British Columbians might have been breached and the Ministry was taking steps to punish wrongdoers and protect our future privacy.

At last count, at least nine people have lost their jobs in this scandal. There are three lawsuits against the government and Roderick and two other employees, represented by the BC Government Employees Union, filed grievances.

All of these firings are perplexing, but none more so than the firing of a lowly co-op student with three days left in his term. When Rod was fired, his evaluation of smoking-cessation drugs stopped so we’ll never know whether the drugs he was evaluating were harming or killing people.

There have been many requests for information, but the stock response from the Ministry, “The matter is under investigation,” has stifled all requests, save one. That one freedom of information request asked for data on the numbers of co-op students who have ever been canned from the BC government. Ever. Over the last 10 years, there have been thousands of students who have completed co-op work terms with the BC government. There is only one record of a student being fired. One. It was Roderick.

 

As someone who has worked in pharmaceutical policy research for 19 years, I have never witnessed a more unsettling atmosphere around the Ministry of Health. No one has any answers as to why government employees, some with more than 25 years of service in the Ministry, were simply discarded. Other parts of BC’s pharmacovigilance (drug safety monitoring) work has been disrupted. BC is part of a national group called DSEN, the Drug Safety and Effectiveness Network, which, along with other provinces, is carrying out evaluations on a range of commonly prescribed drugs.

Last month, DSEN published a very important study on the safety of cholesterol-lowering statin drugs in the British Medical Journal. See www.bmj.com/content/346/bmj.f880 Using large data sets across multiple jurisdictions and weapons-grade epidemiologic expertise, these researchers carried out the kind of “real world” (by definition, outside clinical trials) research the drug industry doesn’t do.

Statins are known to cause muscle weakening and adverse effects on cognition, but we don’t even have a complete picture of their overall safety, as some of the major statin trials (funded by the pharmaceutical companies) don’t even release the full serious adverse effects data.

This DSEN study found that high dose statin users were 34% more likely to be hospitalized for acute kidney injury within four months of taking the drug, compared to those on low-dose statins. When you consider the millions of Canadians swallowing a statin every day, the overall number of people being harmed is likely in the thousands.

This study also shows why BC needs to be involved in independent, publicly funded drug evaluation. BC researchers are among Canada’s best in this type of research and are skilled in using large anonymous databases where personal health privacy is never an issue.

 

You can look in any jurisdiction in Canada where data breaches and improper employee conduct are suspected and never find a case this aggressively pursued. After her initial alarm, the Minister told us that, in this case, there is no evidence that anyone’s personal health records have been used inappropriately.

For a precedence on how bad privacy breaches in Canada can be, one need look no further than the case of Captain Sean Bruyea, a Canadian Air Force officer who served in the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Without his permission or knowledge, all of his personal, medical and financial files were distributed across a wide swath of officials in the Department of Veterans Affairs, who used this as ammunition to try to silence what was a fierce critic of Canada’s returning veterans. A total of 54 people had inappropriately accessed Bruyea’s file; 36 received an ‘administrative memo;’ nine were reprimanded and nine received one-day suspensions. Nobody was fired. No one. Let’s put this in context: When government employees were actually found to be egregiously breaking the law in accessing personalized files, not a single person was fired.

Which makes those firings in BC all the more mysterious. No one is more shocked than Doug Kayfish, Roderick’s brother-in-law. “I come from the corporate world,” he told me, adding, “You don’t just go and fire senior people. But a whole department? That’s sending a message.”

He admired Rod who he called a “pure scientist” with an impeccable level of integrity. When his family heard that Rod had been fired, he said, “We thought that was the stupidest thing we’d ever heard. How could that possibly be? How does this even fit?”

Minister MacDiarmid said she was “deeply troubled” and told media, “The Ministry provided the Royal Canadian Mounted Police with the interim review of this investigation in August 2012.” My calls to the RCMP confirmed they are “awaiting files” from the Ministry, but none of the fired employees has even been questioned by the RCMP. Some have suggested the RCMP ‘involvement’ is a red herring and, from the point of view of the fired employees, constant media references to the RCMP do nothing but colour the whole affair in more ominous hues.

At one news conference, the Health Minister, with a deeply furrowed brow, told reporters, “I can’t really overstate how deeply troubled I am.” She said she “instructed the Ministry to continue to take whatever steps are necessary to respond to these matters thoroughly.” Those words, “whatever steps necessary” scare everyone involved in this nightmare, especially given the Kafkaesque interrogations of the Ministry employees who were terminated, the dread felt as the people who remain get brought in for questioning and the impenetrable secrecy which hangs over the entire affair.

 

I asked Linda Kayfish if she had any theories about what was going on and she didn’t hesitate: “Follow the money,” she said.

With BC’s PharmaCare program spending more than $1.2 billion of our money on drugs every year, there is a lot of cash to follow. Many people wonder if the drug safety evaluations done by employees like Roderick and other evaluators were finding things the pharmaceutical manufacturers didn’t like. Would that be enough to lead to an anaphylactic reaction in the bureaucracy and a carpet-bombing of the Ministry of Health?

“Follow the money,” repeats Linda Kayfish. “I’m looking in that direction. Makes me really wonder who else would benefit from this?” The people who were fired certainly didn’t benefit from this.”

Linda’s voice verges on anger when she thinks of the wider impact on the other fired staff who are now filing grievances or suing the government and she asks the question many observers have asked: “Is there someone who had it in for all these people?”

The reason for our current lack of answers might be due to the revelations emerging from the Liberals’ “Ethnicgate” affair, which showed that employees doing ministry business use personal email or verbal decision making to avoid the prying eyes of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. (None of a dozen or so FOI requests submitted by myself and other journalists revealed any information.)

This complete lack of information is particularly heart wrenching. “If the goal is to keep kicking the can down the road so everyone forgets about it, then we’re well on our way,” Doug notes.

 

There are several dominant theories bubbling up in this government town as people try to explain this massive, unprecedented destruction of BC’s drug safety system.

The first is the Keystone Kops theory where those Ministry officials carrying out the investigation have run amok, firing people on a whiff of wrongdoing. Many decision makers involved are relatively new: the Health Minister, her Deputy Graham Whitmarsh – who signed the letters firing people – Barbara Walman, the new ADM at PSD, Lindsay Kislock, the ADM in charge of data access and Wendy Taylor, the lead interrogator. This theory suggests the bureaucrats behind this fiasco are inexperienced and thus vulnerable to bad advice from the top. Taking a lesson from Stanley Milgram, the famous obedience researcher, they might just say, “I’m just following orders.” The question then arises: “Who gave the orders?”

We can all speculate about who might benefit from the destruction of BC’s independent drug safety system and that leads to the final theory, which we call the Big Data theory. This is premised on the potentially huge ‘economic opportunity’ represented by the meticulously collected health and drug use data of British Columbians. For the past year or so, we’ve seen people such as Colin Hansen and BC’s Chair of the Data Stewardship Committee, Bruce Carleton, out there waving the ‘open data’ flag, suggesting that BC’s health data should be shared on a for-profit basis, including selling access to it to drug companies. Last fall, Margaret MacDiarmid echoed this sentiment in the Globe and Mail, saying, “Instead of asking why should we open things up, what we really want to ask is, why shouldn’t we?” See www.theglobeandmail.com/news/ british-columbia/ plan-to-unlock-bcs-trove-of-medical-data-raises-privacy-concerns/article4100976/?service=mobile

Some have theorized that halting everything, cutting off data access and implementing interminable delays in restarting things will ultimately lead to the destruction of our current system for equipping publicly funded independent scientists with data to evaluate. Once you’ve blown that up, it’s time to move on to step #2: Open the doors to privatize our health information.

BC voters will soon go to the polls. They deserve to know one thing: What is really going on in the Ministry of Health that warrants risking our health by depriving us and our doctors of reliable information about drug safety in British Columbia?

Those of us who swallow prescription drugs deserve the best evidence about their safety. We deserve answers from this government and the next.

Resources:

The Best Place on Earth (for pharmaceutical companies) by Alan Cassels, Focus online, March 2013, www.focusonline.ca Six Fired, Two Lawsuits, One Dead – But Still No Answers by Alan Cassels, Vancouver Sun, March 12, 2013, www.vancouversun.com Adverse Reactions by Paul Webster, Vancouver magazine, April 2013, www.vancouvermagazine.com Pharmageddon by Dr. David Healy (University of California Press, 2012), www.davidhealy.org

Alan Cassels is a pharmaceutical policy researcher and the author of Seeking Sickness. For the past 19 years, Cassels has worked on national and provincial studies of drug benefits policies. None of his income comes from any of the interrupted studies mentioned in this article.

Where are the dead bodies, Health Canada?

by W. Gifford-Jones M.D.

W. Gifford-Jones M.D.
• Do you know that every day 290 North American citizens are killed by prescription drugs? To kill the same number of people, a jumbo jet would have to crash every day. So why are natural remedies being removed from health food stores while drugs that kill remain available?

Dr. Zoltan Rona, an expert on natural remedies, recently told me, “Health Canada has been raiding health food stores, terrorizing proprietors and confiscating natural food supplements. Could you help to stop it?” he asked me.

Rona described a New York Times report in which it was noted that the government’s primary suspect in 542 deaths was Pradax, a blood-thinning agent. Moreover, when this drug causes bleeding, there is no antidote to stop it. Yet Health Canada has done nothing to remove Pradax from the market. However, it has removed a competitor, the soy-derived enzyme nattokinase, a safe, effective, natural blood thinner that has not harmed anyone and has been used for centuries in Japan.

While researching this article, I interviewed several other authorities who were concerned that other natural remedies are no longer available. I also discovered a most disturbing fact. In Germany, a doctor’s prescription is now required to obtain vitamin C. A red light flashed, as I’ve recently reported that Medi-C Plus, a powder that contains a high concentration of vitamin C and lysine, can prevent and reverse coronary heart disease.

Germans now pay $45 for 90 tablets of 500 milligrams of vitamin C. Since I take several thousands of Medi-C Plus daily, this asinine ruling would cost me $3,600 annually for C. This shows how far governments go to control natural remedies. It’s sheer, unadulterated madness since there is no known toxic amount of vitamin C. For instance, it’s been proven safe to give intravenous injections of several hundred thousand milligrams of vitamin C day after day intravenously to fight infection.

Today, many people are also taking Sytrinol, a natural remedy consisting of citrus and palm fruit extract, which decreases total and bad cholesterol, triglycerides, and increases good cholesterol. For the moment it’s still available and there’s no scientific reason it should be removed. But if it happens, patients will be forced to switch to cholesterol-lowering drugs whose safety record leaves much to be desired.

Alan Cassels, a drug policy researcher at the University of Victoria, says, “Cholesterol-lowering drugs are not worth the risk and history will regard CLDs as an unmitigated scandal in medicine.” Readers know I share this view. But hell will freeze over before Health Canada raises an alarm and closes the door on these multi-billion dollar risky products. Money and high-paid lobbyists have won the day in Ottawa and Washington.

Other North Americans are taking products such as BioSil to prevent osteoporosis (fragile bones). This natural silicon product safely deposits calcium and phosphate into bone. It’s even more effective if used along with vitamin D3, which helps to absorb calcium from the bowel and vitamin K2 that deposits calcium and phosphate into bone where they belong, rather than into arteries where they cause trouble.

Will these people be forced to take drugs such as Fosamax and Actonel that have been associated with unusual fractures and degeneration of the jawbone?

If government bureaucrats are honestly interested in the welfare of medical consumers, the best way for them to make an assessment is to examine records of the dead bodies. Data collected from 57 Poison Control Centers in the U.S. showed that, in 2010, there were no deaths from the use of vitamin and herbal supplements. This in spite of the fact that, during that year, there were 60 billion doses of nutritional supplements taken.

So where will these amateur forensic bureaucrats find the dead bodies? It doesn’t require a long, tedious search. The Journal of the American Medical Association claims that, every year, there are 60,000 deaths from pharmaceutical drugs in the US and 10,000 in Canada. Now, it’s the fourth leading cause of death after cancer, heart disease and stroke.

The point is prescription drugs can kill; natural remedies, never. It’s time that Health Canada learned this message.

Dr. W. Gifford-Jones is a graduate of the University of Toronto and The Harvard Medical School. During his medical training, he has been a family doctor, hotel doctor and ship’s surgeon. He is a Fellow of The Royal College of Surgeons and author of seven books. For comments, email Dr. Gifford-Jones at info@docgiff.com, www.docgiff.com