Big Pharma, Big Food, and the Health Care Crisis Ahead

Do you remember the drug company scandal from a few years back?  You can be forgiven if you can’t exactly remember.  But if I asked you if you remember the OxyContin scandal my guess is you probably remember now.  That awful story bankrupted pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma and there is still an open question as to whether members of the majority shareholding Sackler family can be held personally liable in their role ‘pushing’ addictive drugs.

I was reminded of this story when I was reading a recent article in Benefits Canada about the new wonder drug, Ozempic.  If you missed the big story in the benefits industry in 2023, it is the drug class semaglutide.  These drugs were formulated to assist diabetics in the production of insulin and as far as I understand they work.  But as these drugs gained usage, it became widely reported that patients were losing weight.  Since being overweight increases the risk of diabetes, seeing patients lose weight, some doctors have started to prescribe the drug to ‘pre-diabetics’ trying to head off the disease before it takes hold.

Anyhoo – back to the article.  The gist of it is that obesity should be treated like other chronic conditions under benefit plans – at least according to Obesity Canada.  So that got me thinking some more.  In the old days I assumed that Big Pharma were the well-educated and well-intentioned scientists trying to understand how our bodies work, how illness is caused, and how illness can be cured so that we can all live better and longer lives.  But since Purdue Pharma exposed at least one company as being led by executives focused much more on making money than creating healthier patients, I have become jaded. 

So, when Obesity Canada says we should do something, right before I agree, I ask myself who is Obesity Canada?  I am no great detective, but lucky for me, the Obesity Canada website has a partners page that gives us some clues.  It is a mix of organizations and individual donors.  Two stood out for me.  One is Novo Nordisk Canada which is a maker of Insulin and THE maker of Ozempic.  Another is the food company Nestle which bills itself as a “leader in the science of nutrition”.  You don’t need to be a seasoned lawyer to figure out that these ‘partners’ might have an interest in the advice being given to overweight Canadians.  And no surprise that they think it’s a good idea if someone other than patients pay for their products.

Cause vs Cure

By complete coincidence, my buddy Dave lent me the book Metabolical by Robert Lustig.  I was telling Dave that I was continuing my journey to lose the ‘last 10 pounds’ and had concluded that sugar is my problem – arguably an addiction.  The reality is that I should lose 20 pounds but if I accept being 10 pounds over my ideal weight, then pounds 11 to 20 are the last 10.  This is the kind of math you can do when you get a degree in mathematics.

Anyhoo – back to the book.  The book is a disheartening read and at times complicated with chemistry.  For someone who scraped through organic chemistry in high school these were the pages that were easy to skip.  In a nutshell, Lustig reaches the brutal conclusion that our food supply has gone haywire, and we are all getting sicker each year.  His main thesis is captured in the expression that “it isn’t what is in the food, it’s what they have done to the food”.  Lustig attacks ‘ultra processed food’ as the villain with sugar playing the leading role.  The good news is that it looks like my hunch that sugar is my problem is right – the bad news is the book spells out even more evil going on inside of me than even I realized in terms of how processed foods interfere with our natural systems.  If you want to know more you will need to read the book and brush up on your chemistry.

The other important message that Lustig gives us is that Big Food has no qualms about making us sick as long as we keep buying their products.  Processed foods deliver more profits per calorie than what he calls ‘real food’ and since many believe the theory of ‘calories are calories’ we lean towards less expensive calories to feed ourselves.  The book explains why calories from oranges are better than calories from orange juice and points out that diabetes is increasing within the population at an alarming rate.   Finally, the book reminds us that most products being pushed by Big Pharma aren’t cures to our illnesses but simply cures for the symptoms of our illnesses.

Crisis what Crisis?

All of this has me back to one of my biggest concerns that lies ahead.  The healthcare crisis that is already upon us.  Long waits in emergency rooms and clinics, people unable to get a family doctor, the cost of drugs increasingly unaffordable for many.  Doctors, nurses and other staff in the system burning out with increasing demands from the load of patients without increasing staff and support.  We can debate forever how much a doctor or a nurse should make, but right now we can’t afford more at the current wage.

I try to stay out of politics and I am consistently critical of the overspending by all our governments regardless of their party brand.  By my math the baby boomers are in for a hard road ahead.  We keep hearing reports that many of them have not saved enough for retirement.  Government spending on health care has reached its limit.  Medical professionals are expected to retire in large number over the next decade and the costs for new drugs we invent to solve our problems only go one direction. 

Icing on the cake, the no vacancy sign is up at every long-term care home so when you reach the stage where that is the answer you get on a waiting list until someone ahead of you dies.  How lovely that this is how life gets to end for so many.  We can pump ourselves full of drugs to keep us alive for longer than ever – but it doesn’t mean it’s a fulfilling final stage of life.

I don’t know how we are going to get out of this mess – but my guess is that there will be lots of heartache along the way.  For me, I have a renewed sense of urgency to improve my diet.  I am not delusional enough to think I can get my insides completely repaired, but if I can reduce the additional damage that I pile on going forward, that will be a start I figure.

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