Poison Pills: How Prescription Drugs are Harming Patients and Bankrupting the Healthcare SystemHelke Ferrie March 1, 2013
“Hearing the truth about drugs is like trying to hear a mouse tap dance during a hurricane.”
K.L. Carlson, Diary of a Legal Drug Dealer, 2010
We live in a perpetual healthcare hurricane, a marketing storm whipped up continuously with tidings of pharmacological breakthroughs and admonitions to submit to preventive screening tests guaranteed to detect some dreaded disease before it’s too late. This is a lucrative business – keeping people constantly terrified and confused. It is difficult to think calmly in a storm, which makes herding the fearful easier.
Although this marketing strategy costs the top ten Pharma companies about $85 billion a year, it has proven so profitable and succeeded so well in neutralizing critical thinking in doctors and patients alike, that Harry Loynd, the former CEO of pharmaceutical giant Parke-Davis, was able to give his sales reps this motivational message: “If we put horse manure in a capsule, we could sell it to 95 per cent of doctors.” Actually, horse manure produced by a vegetarian animal is safe for birds to eat, while the drugs in those capsules, rightly assumed to be toxic by all drug regulators, do injure or kill about 1.5 million people in North America annually – as we learn from an Institute of Medicine report and Johns Hopkins Medical School research.
A bottle showing a skull and crossbones is internationally understood as identifying poison. Historically, it is known as the “Jolly Roger”, a pirate ship flag. But today’s pirates don’t jump off ships with a knife between their teeth and a patch over one eye. They overpower us instead with threats of death if we don’t follow their orders to be tested and drugged. The identification of toxicity is today encrypted in technical lingo requiring professional passwords, such as enzyme CYP2D6 polymorphisms (an enzyme that differs in people, thus increasing or decreasing the chance adverse effects or death), rhabdomyolysis (injured heart muscle caused by cholesterol-lowering drugs), or “emotional lability” (pharma-speak for people becoming suicidal or homicidal on antidepressants).
There is little difference between victims of pirates in previous centuries assaulted on the high seas and us when given a prescription by a doctor: we are more likely than not harmed individually and our governments are robbed blind. As former drug rep K.L. Carlson describes: “We were trained and expected to encourage physicians to write prescriptions when public money paid for the drugs” – e.g., the elderly, children in government care, institutionalized people everywhere – and those “opportunities for prescriptions were called the ‘low hanging fruit’.”
The robbing of the public purse is summarized in a 2012 Canadian Institute for Health Information report. Between 1998 and 2007, prescription drug spending rose from $8 billion to $19 billion. By 2010, spending rose to $31.1 billion, yet neither the population grew much nor was inflation to blame. Most drug money in Canada (and the U.S.) was squandered on “the greatest health scam of the century”, namely cholesterol-lowering drugs. This is the view of Dr. George V. Mann, MD, the co-director of the Framingham Heart Study, the largest ever study which showed that cholesterol is not the cause of heart attacks, and statin drugs do more harm than good.
Harvard’s Dr. John Abramson, MD, called the cholesterol-causes-heart disease scam, which gave rise to the biggest blockbuster drug in medical history, “a perversion of science”; University of British Columbia’s Therapeutics Initiative research supports this condemnation of the cholesterol myth and statin drugs, as do studies from autopsies on people who died of heart attacks: they had very low cholesterol levels. What we do know is that statin drugs are very good at causing heart attacks.
Second to statins, Canadians paid the most for antihypertensive and anti-inflammatory drugs, mostly for arthritis and cancer – both lifestyle diseases which are essentially caused by environmental toxins and malnutrition. (If we were to cure high blood pressure, cancer and arthritis, which is only possible through non-toxic ‘alternative’ therapies, it would cause an economic crash which dwarfs the 2008 financial meltdown, but also a clean planet like none of us have ever imagined.)
The Canadian report hits the sore spot when pointing out that “treatment guidelines have lowered target cholesterol levels; this in turn increased the number of patients recommended for treatment.” Those guidelines are now well known as being Big Pharma-created.
The good news in this report is in a chart showing the “patent cliff” down which Big Pharma will careen right after 2014 when all blockbuster drugs lose their patent protection: Canada’s wholesale purchases for drugs will, with certainty, drop to 1/8th of current expenditures, and by 2020 to less than 5% of current spending. Take home message: Medicare may be saved by 2020.
The most astonishing assumption in medicine is the acceptance of toxicity for all medicines. Nobody seems to question this. Even the most well intentioned physicians simply assume that therapies have a toxic component and that good practice amounts to being careful. The idea that medicine need not – indeed should not – be toxic, but ought to be supportive of the ever-present organic healing processes of nature, that idea is not voiced in mainstream medicine.
The manufacturer’s information on each drug (prescription and over the counter), which is available on the internet (google the drug’s name + manufacturer’s information), includes toxicity information, detoxification routes orchestrated by liver enzymes, and the statistical chance of reversible or irreversible side effects. Pharmacology textbooks are essentially toxicology manuals. This is so scary that I have inspired many people to get off their drugs by simply asking them to read the manufacturer’s information on whatever they were taking. It is also available at pharmacies: ask for the Compendium of Pharmaceuticals and Specialties (CPS) information. Sharing this information with the patient is what doctors are supposed to do because the law requires “informed consent”, but most doctors do not even read this information themselves – if they did, how could they prescribe such nightmarish stuff?
Depletion of liver enzymes – Almost all drugs are toxic and capable of overwhelming the liver’s protective cytochrome P450 enzyme system. One very important enzyme, CYP2D6, can differ between people such that it will take larger than average medication dosing to get any effect, but in others a fraction of that standard dose will with certainty cause serious adverse reactions, including the triggering of cancer from drugs like Tamoxifen intended to prevent recurrence of breast cancer.
Another one, CYP2C19, can differ in populations such that extreme amplification of side effects results, specifically with SSRI antidepressants. Note also that this bio-individual variation of those two enzymes is responsible for most drug failures in clinical trials, and for the withdrawals of drugs from the market once a lot of people are harmed or killed. Tests are now available to establish if a patient is at risk from an inherited enzyme variation.
Depletion of glutathione – Even without this genetic wrinkle, all drugs stress out the liver’s super-detoxer, glutathione, a tripeptide that protects every cell in our bodies from damage by free radicals and orchestrates the elimination of anything toxic entering from the environment, including drugs. Lose glutathione and you die.
Neurotoxicity – Another typical pathway of harm is neurotoxicity, meaning the drug harms the central nervous system by crossing the blood-brain barrier. This is the typical effect of psychiatric and ADHD drugs: shrinkage of brain volume or of specific brain areas involving judgment and emotions. Yet another pathway is by way of cytotoxicity (e.g. cancer drugs and most antibiotics, except penicillin) which affect cells directly and promote cancer by interfering with cell-repair and the work of the immune system’s police force arising from the p53 tumour suppressor genes.
Hormone disruptors – hormone disruptors are another form of poison. Bovine growth hormone (from meat or milk from animals contaminated with it), synthetic hormone replacement therapy, the birth control pill, pesticides, and many industrial chemicals disrupt the body’s communication systems by raising prolactin levels, a pituitary hormone also called a neuropeptide; this starts a chain-reaction capable of leading to cancer.
Originally, Drugs Were Not Toxic
It was not always like this. The first effective drugs were not toxic. The first antibiotic was Prontosil, made in 1932 from a red dye by Gerhard Domagk who found it killed staphylococci in mice. When his own daughter became infected with this potentially deadly pathogen, she was the first to be saved by Prontosil. Its action was not understood until it turned out that liver enzymes split Prontosil molecules, causing half to become lethal only to staph bacteria, but not to humans; the other half was eliminated. Investigation of this liver-created antibiotic led to the sulfa drugs. (The liver literally made the first totally non-toxic antibiotic!) A little earlier, Alexander Fleming discovered in 1929 that mould has antibiotic properties, creating an equally non-toxic antibiotic, penicillin. Once the vast possibilities for drug development began, the “hidden domains of ignorance” (coined by U of T’s ecologist Henry Regier) began to appear as well, such as antibiotic resistance and poisonous side effects. The new discipline of drug metabolism arose in tandem with the development of toxic drugs.
Now, Big Pharma science has hit the wall. The February 7, 2013, issue of Nature describes a new project, initiated by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, headed by a neurologist who also happens to be a professional opera singer. Having worked at one point for Merck, infamous for having killed hundreds of thousands of people with its anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx, he also knows about post-marketing disasters resulting in drugs being withdrawn. Killing one’s customers does not pay. Austin wants to develop a pharmaceutical model that identifies toxicity first through computer modeling with all the already known toxicity information. In other words: ask the body first what it will not tolerate. Austin began with a project known as Tox21 in 2011 by “screening some 10,000 environmental chemicals, including drugs, against every known signaling pathway to identify which molecules might have toxic effects.” Austin has a sense of humour. “I got into medicine to understand the human condition. Fundamentally, that’s what opera tries to explore. What makes people tick? And then, sometimes, how do you fix it?”
Fear – The Worst Poison
In the meantime, what do we do to ensure we don’t get poisoned? This toxicity problem is universally acknowledged and rapidly informing economic considerations and trickling into clinical practice. One example: in 2011 Canadian cardiologists decided to document the problems with statin drugs. A report on this effort was published in The Medical Post on April 4, 2012, summarizing in lists and tables the known and potential harm from statins. The doctors were still clinging, of course, to the drugs’ usefulness and sounding like priests agonizing over losing their faith. Their recommendations include starting with the lowest possible dose, carefully listening to anything the patients report, switching drugs rather than ignoring patient reports, and finally – when all else appears to fail, maybe try niacin (vitamin B3), magnesium, coenzyme Q10, vitamin D3, vitamin E and dietary changes. I heard this whooping laughter in my mind – and I think maybe that was from the ghosts of Linus Pauling and Abram Hoffer.
Ultimately, the worst poison is fear. If doctors cause us to fear strokes, heart attacks, cancer, osteoporosis, etc., to the extent that we go running to the doctor for a prescription, we have entered the hurricane zone. Once fear permeates our thought patterns we are no longer cool. There are fear busters out there, such as the great books by UBC’s Alan Cassels (e.g., Seeking Sickness), Peter Breggin’s Toxic Psychiatry, the textbooks by Dr. Alan Gaby, MD, and Dr. Jonathan Prousky, ND, (the latter reviewed in this issue of Vitality), and perhaps also my own small contribution available this coming April, Creative Outrage.
Next time you see your doctor, ask him or her to read with you the manufacturer’s information on a proposed prescription, and ask to be tested for the levels of your CYP2D6 and CYP2C19 enzymes to find out if you are a fast, medium, or slow metabolizer. If that’s not possible, insist on half the lowest standard dose and watch for reactions. If any adverse reactions appear, stop the drug immediately. If you must take a prescription drug of known potential toxicity, feed your glutathione-producing liver with good quality, high-dose, amino acid complexes and vitamins. Above all, avoid blockbuster drugs; generic ones are always less harmful.
Medicine is going through a huge transition and while you may not blindly trust anybody in this system, you yourself are free to practice the wisdom of Hippocrates (“first, do no harm” – to yourself) by listening to your body, your instinct, and doing some research with an open and critical mind. Stay cool.
H. Ferrie, Creative Outrage, Kos 2013 (available April)
K.L. Carlson, Diary of a Legal Drug Dealer, 2010
On diagnoses, therapies, and drugs go to University of British Columbia Therapeutics Initiative, www.ti.ubc.ca
Drug harm: P450 Drug Interaction Table, Indiana University: www.medicine.iupui.edu/clinpharm/ddis/table.aspx.
Publications in medical journals on drug toxicity: GreenMedInfo.com
Psychiatric drugs: Google Mad In America, Dr. David Healy, and Dr. Peter Breggin.
Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, 18th edition, 2012 (the section on pharmacology)
Canadian Institute for Health Information, Drivers of Prescription Drug Spending in Canada, 2012 (download file)
To Err is Human – Building a Safer Health System, Institute of Medicine, National Academy Press, 2000
D. Lednicer, New Drug Discovery and Development, Wiley, 2007
K.E. Stine & T.M. Brown, Principles of Toxicology, 2nd ed. Taylor & Francis, 2009
M. Ingelman-Sundburg, Genetic polymorphisms of cytochrome P450 2D6 (CY_2D6): clinical consequences, evolutionary aspects and functional diversity, The Pharmacogenomics Journal, vol. 5, 2005
M.P. Goetz et al. CYP2D6 Metabolism and Patient Outcome in the Austrian Breast and Colorectal Cancer Study Group Trial (ABCSG) 8, Clinical Cancer Research, December 2012
W. M. Lee, Drug-Induced Hepatoxicity, New England Journal of Medicine, July 31, 2003
M. Wadman, Medicine man (on Christopher Austin jumpstarting drug discovery processes), Nature, vol. 494, Feb. 7, 2013, pp. 24-26
“Reining in adverse effects of statins” was a feature by Dr. G.B.J. Mancini in The Medical Post, April 10, 2012. Consensus paper: Canadian Journal of Cardiology, vol. 27, issue 5, pp. 635-662, September 2011
For correct information on cholesterol issue read Dr. Zoltan Rona’s articles on the Vitality website; also recommended are:
M. Kendrick MD, The Great Cholesterol Con – The Truth About What really Causes Heart Disease and How To Avoid It, John Blake Publishing, 2007
Go to Vitality’s website and read the articles by Dr. Zoltan Rona
S. Rogers MD, The High Blood Pressure Hoax, Prestige Publishing, 2005
U. Ravnskov MD, The Cholesterol Myths, New Trends Publishing 2000
O. Faergeman, Coronary Artery Disease – Genes, Drugs and the Agricultural Connection, Elsevier 2003
For information on how antidepressants and ADHD drugs shrink the brain and interfere with neuronal activity, go to Mad In America for the mainstream published sources.