Monday, April 2, 2007

Let’s Not Be the Next Big Pharma

How the natural health industry risks its credibility and cohesion by behaving as if it were nothing more than the world market replacement for Big Pharma.

by Emma Holister

Campaigning in the health freedom movement can, as one prominent campaigner once said to me, be like playing a game of chess while walking through a minefield. To take the image further one could say that the possibility of getting metaphorically blown off one’s feet while trying to navigate through the hair-raising political contradictions of this movement is a daily cause of stress amongst activists.

One example of the inner tensions springing up around us is the way in which anti-pharma-activist toes can be trodden on when the natural health/supplements industry behaves too much like a simple market replacement for the pharmaceutical industry.



Faced as we are with the threat of a worldwide ban on natural health products by Codex Alimentarius, the European Commission and other international health and finance regulators, it’s only reasonable that the natural health industry shout its alarm from every rooftop. As individuals who care about human rights it is vital that we support the campaigns fighting the bans.

However, legitimate and necessary as it is to draw people’s attention to the dangers of our current medical industry and our need to develop a healthcare system based on natural methods and respect for individual choices, the fact is that those who have the loudest voices in the natural health world are frequently the businesses.

Their language and perspectives occasionally clash with those of ordinary individuals or patients who may be fighting to free themselves from an unhealthy dependence on products, products and yet more products. In fact the situation is at times so marked that individuals and patients are increasingly referred to as ‘consumers’ and nothing else.

Many activists in the more medically repressive countries such as France and Spain are more concerned with their basic human rights, rather than their shopper’s rights.

They are fighting for the right to refuse compulsory vaccinations containing mercury, formaldehyde and anti-freeze amongst other toxins. They are fighting to retain custody over their children if ever they do refuse forced medical treatments. They are alarmed by laws that make it a legal grey area, or even illegal, to use healing plants from their own back garden. They are outraged by the ban on homemade organic nettle slurry, an effective natural fertilizer.

The scope of the medical-chemical-pharmaceutical industry’s interference with the average individual’s life and health is overwhelming. The pharmaceutical industry is nothing if not versatile, what with its thriving commerce in pesticides, chemical additives to our food and water, toxic household and body products and chemical weapons of mass destruction. The cherry on the cake is the intrusion into our lives of a medical industry that insistently drugs us with deadly poisons each time we get sick and ask it for help; sicknesses more often than not that have been caused by its reckless trafficking in environmental poisons. It is disturbing that patients are forced to turn for help to the very industry that made them ill in the first place.

So it can be irritating when supplement companies speak out for one’s right to be a consumer of vitamin pills above all other considerations. For the average immunity-damaged, medication-damaged and financially-damaged ex-patient, not only are we hounded for attempting to use natural therapies, be they free home remedies or purchased supplements, but we are quite literally swallowed up by a medical-pharmaceutical complex that forcibly assaults us and our children from every direction with a limitless barrage of toxic products.

The word that can make one bristle after a while is ‘product’. There are toxic chemical products, and there are good quality natural products. While we must do everything in our power to protect the latter, let’s not forget the ex-patient’s exasperation with a world in which one is obliged to pay for products each time the issue of health arises.

Moreover, nowhere is this type of industry-focused campaigning more pronounced than where there are the strongest ties to the pharmaceutical industry. The worst culprits of this money-product-consumer talk are the big companies who comply with the pharmaceutically-dominated vitamin associations such as IADSA, CRN and their respective national partners, such as SYNADIET and the FFD in France - all of whom, it is interesting to note, support the EU and Codex bans on supplements.



So, worse even than emulation, is the actual take-over that has already happened in the larger part of the natural health industry which already belongs to the pharmaceutical industry, be it directly, as in ownership of vitamin companies by the pharmaceutical giants, or indirectly, by very large supplement companies who, like the drug industry, will profit from the watering down of the supplement industry.

The big companies march in line with the major vitamin and natural health products trade unions, and any small companies wishing to survive and maintain the quality and purity of their products will have the industry dogs set upon them if they don’t toe the line with the big boys.

Those companies who may wish to distance themselves from the major trade unions in bed with the drug industry risk having government watchdogs set upon them. To use France as an example once more, this would be harassment from the Ministry of Finance’s DGCCRF fraud squad. Consequently the independent, small companies are running scared, finding it hard to break away from the stranglehold of their unions who are hell-bent on crushing them into submission.

The influence of the drug industry is pernicious and omnipresent. For example, prominent in the large vitamin unions is the company Capsugel, owned by Pfizer. Which vitamin company, be it one of the big ‘nasties’ or the little good guys, is able to produce supplements without using this pharmaceutical giant’s capsules? The drug industry have cornered the market in this domain. As a result, the small companies are shy and nervous about talking health freedom - who can blame them? What with their trade associations breathing fire down their necks and their drug industry suppliers keeping them in an arm-lock, it’s not easy to be a businessman and keep the health freedom banner flying.

This conflict of interests is clearly illustrated by two recent articles by NutraIngredients.com. The first, “Industry must step up as alternative to America's 'diseasification'” http://www.nutraingredients-usa.com/news/ng.asp?n=74867&m=1NIU309&c=lmqbgluszkwtiej might be seen as a fair enough article in its support of a move away from a healthcare system based on pharmaceuticals and ‘diseasification’ to a healthcare system that encourages the use of supplements and holistic disease prevention. The conclusions are reasonable. Such an approach is far more effective for the consumer and far less costly for the taxpayer. However, the language of the article is still eerily money-focused with statements such as:

"The future will be determined by how effectively we inform the public of the value of our products." and “Trade associations are already gearing their activities with this goal in mind. For instance in 2006, the CRN announced its intention to build a multimillion dollar industry-wide project to counter a proliferation of bad news on the industry.”


The second article is a little harder to digest: “Industry must embrace politics, associations urge” http://www.nutraingredients-usa.com/news/ng.asp?id=71547 sporting as it does statements such as:

“With annual contributions of approximately $1.8m, the dietary supplement industry ranks 74th out of the various lobbying industries in terms of the amount of money it gives to political action committees. Seckman said this is not nearly enough when considering the supplement industry is worth $23bn. ‘So, if it's not money, what makes this industry so influential?’ asked Seckman. ‘It's our grassroots.’ This 'grassroots' quality of the industry, according to Seckman, refers to how the consumption of dietary supplements affects the lives of the very voters senators are trying to reach. And, he added, this approach has not been lost on industry members. . . The president and CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, Steve Mister, encouraged industry members to join trade associations and Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association, urged trade association members in turn to make full use of these representative bodies to get their needs addressed.”

Are we therefore to take it that the international grassroots health freedom movement is the supplement industry’s great hope for making billions of dollars? This is the type of language that angers campaigners in grassroots organisations that are fighting to make their voices heard in a world where their health rights have been reduced to nothing more than market forces.

If market forces continue to be the main focus of attention in this war against takeovers and infiltration within the natural health industry, rather than basic human rights, small companies may risk losing their last pillar of support - the common people.