With news and pseudo-news being generated on a momentary basis by President Trump, one item in particular caught my attention. In discussing his campaign promise to “repeal and replace” Obamacare last week, the president noted that the process of reforming the nation’s health care program is hard. According to a story from CNN,
President Donald Trump noted with some exasperation Monday the complexity of the nation’s health laws, which he’s vowed to reform as part of a bid to scrap Obamacare.
“We have come up with a solution that’s really, really I think very good,” Trump said at a meeting of the nation’s governors at the White House.
“Now, I have to tell you, it’s an unbelievably complex subject,” he added. “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”
An early view
In the words of Morrissey, stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before, as I’ve written often about my early exposure to holistic options for healthcare way back in the 60s, before the modern yuppie creature took hold of the natural healing space, and in their designer yoga pants turned health into wellness fashion.
As a youngster in the Bronx, before the Beatles landed at JFK, my mother was exposed to chiropractic care to help my younger sister who was suffering with asthma and getting nowhere with the conventional pediatrician. With relief after a few chiropractic treatments, my mother’s eyes were opened to new possibilities in healthcare for the family. We never looked back.
In subsequent years, my mother eschewed mammograms after her first examination in he early 70s, much to the dismay of physicians over following decades, until the scientific community recently concurred with my mother’s hunch: using radiation to look for cancer is pretty insane. My mother’s example of an open-minded skeptic informed my own view and choices about how diet and lifestyle impact well-being on one hand, and how the conventional medical model of treating symptoms was ignoring and downright ignorant to the former. But this was not only a disagreement is philosophy or ideology, but money and power. Who would think?
One of the most successful and devious operations of the propaganda/public relations machine was to convince the public that the foods and preparations of their heritage were old hat, and that the flavors and conveniences of the processed versions produced by their clients were the cool, new replacements. Considering traditional relationships with food – from harvest to plate – held over centuries and millennia depending on the culture, that was quite a demonstration of propaganda’s pull. When you can shift the oldest relationships human beings have, that with their food, that’s called successful marketing. But successful for whom?
One of the most pernicious examples of food industry propaganda is the organized and institutional deception around the effects of sugar consumption. While not news to this writer, or others in the natural health community, this has been exposed publicly through some worthwhile reporting in the NY Times over the past several months.
Exhibit A: how in the 60s three scientists at Harvard were paid by representatives of the sugar industry to shift blame for heart disease from sugar to saturated fats and dietary cholesterol. According to the Times,
The sugar industry paid scientists in the 1960s to play down the link between sugar and heart disease and promote saturated fat as the culprit instead, newly released historical documents show.
The internal sugar industry documents, recently discovered by a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, and published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, suggest that five decades of research into the role of nutrition and heart disease, including many of today’s dietary recommendations, may have been largely shaped by the sugar industry.
“They were able to derail the discussion about sugar for decades,” said Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at U.C.S.F. and an author of the JAMA Internal Medicine paper.
The documents show that a trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation, known today as the Sugar Association, paid three Harvard scientists the equivalent of about $50,000 in today’s dollars to publish a 1967 review of research on sugar, fat and heart disease. The studies used in the review were handpicked by the sugar group, and the article, which was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, minimized the link between sugar and heart health and cast aspersions on the role of saturated fat.
Exhibit B: in order to reflect blame for obesity away from calorie consumption, Coca-Cola hired scientists with particular influence in the medical community to make exercise, or lack of it, the culprit. The Times reports,
Coca-Cola, the world’s largest producer of sugary beverages, is backing a new “science-based” solution to the obesity crisis: To maintain a healthy weight, get more exercise and worry less about cutting calories.
The beverage giant has teamed up with influential scientists who are advancing this message in medical journals, at conferences and through social media. To help the scientists get the word out, Coke has provided financial and logistical support to a new nonprofit organization called the Global Energy Balance Network, which promotes the argument that weight-conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise.
As a result of this reporting by the Times, Coca-Cola’s effort was forced to disband. Still, fifty years on from the Harvard deception, the impacts are clear: obesity and type 2 diabetes are epidemics in America, effecting younger and younger people, with the society-at-large bearing the costs. But if Americans are paying the price, someone’s reaping the profits. Who?
Who’s capitalizing whom?
When we consider the notion of money “lost” on health epidemics like obesity and diabetes, we need to turn our focus to who made that money, as it didn’t simply disappear into the ether. In these cases, two primary profiteers stand out from the predatorial pack: “big food” and “big phama.”
Villain A: Big food. As a result of successfully pinning blame for heart disease on saturated fats, the food processing industry got busy promoting highly processed margarine as a replacement for butter, and low-fat, carbohydrate-rich foods to protect consumers from the dangers of heart disease. While Americans got fatter, much fatter, so too did the coffers of big food. And not only via sales of their fake foods, but also by getting into the diet business, as reported a few years back in the Guardian,
When obesity as a global health issue first came on the radar, the food industry sat up and took notice. But not exactly in the way you might imagine. Some of the world’s food giants opted to do something both extraordinary and stunningly obvious: they decided to make money from obesity, by buying into the diet industry.
Not only did the low-fat craze cause a dramatic increase in obesity, there was a correlating increase in type 2 diabetes. But that’s not all, heart disease also skyrocketed. According to a report published by the National Institutes of Health of a recent workshop convened by the World Heart Federation, “Food Consumption and its impact on Cardiovascular Disease: Importance of Solutions focused on the globalized food system,” the following excerpts stand out,
- First is the shift to refined carbohydrates – refined grains and added sugars.
- Since 1964, average total carbohydrate intake in the US has increased from about 375 g/d to 500 g/d (from 2 to 6 kg/year of ready-to-eat cereals), but the percent of carbohydrate that is fiber has not substantially changed over this time, reflecting increased refined carbohydrates and sugar sweetened beverages.
- Today in the US packaged and processed food supply over 75% of foods have some form of added sugar.
- A second key change has been the increasing intake of vegetable oils, including processed vegetable oils, and a decline in consumption of animal fats.
As we see, the the precise prescription for heart disease propagated on the public by big sugar not only provided profits for big sugar, but for the big agriculture/big food complex as a whole. But the heist doesn’t end there.
Villain B: Big pharma. Never to be caught missing an opportunity to exploit illness and disease, drug companies saw heart disease as an opportunity waiting for a pill. And in 1987, that pill received approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Merck won approval for it’s lovastatin, designed to reduce so-called “bad” cholesterol. With the public, the media, and the medical community already duped by the aforementioned Harvard research, the ball was teed up for advertising agencies to score big. And score big they did, according to Alliance for Natural Health USA,
For example, heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the US, killing about 610,000 people each year. Big Pharma—in the belief (now mostly debunked) that cholesterol is the primary factor in heart disease—developed statin drugs that would lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. The drugs, which have been accompanied by massive marketing campaigns, are huge moneymakers for the drug industry, to the tune of about $29 billion worth of sales in 2013. That’s the kind of outrageous money you make when you convince one in four Americans over the age of 45 to take statins.
These drugs are commonplace despite a laundry list of negative side effects, including a weakened immune system, increases in insulin resistance diabetes risk, a higher incidence of nerve degeneration and pain, memory loss, confusion, and depression. Statins have even been linked to aggressive and violent behavior in women. Despite the frightening list of side effects, these FDA-approved drugs are the weapon of choice for most conventional doctors to treat high blood pressure.
Despite debunking of the cholesterol hypothesis, and the understanding that prescribing statins as a form of preventative medicine causes more harm than good, the promise for continued big pharma profits has finally run its course, leaving many Americans worse off than when statins were introduced three decades ago. You’d think in a just society that sort of medical malfeasance would result in a revolution in our system of health care. Not in our capitalist, market-driven society, where all that’s worshiped is the bottom line – it’s profits over people.
It’s so hard
What‘s not hard to understand is that the pursuit of well-being in America (from proper and just health insurance, to fee-for-service holistic care, to corporatized natural foods and pricey yoga/pilates classes) is the providence of the privileged. What stands in the way of actual wellness in America is our neoliberal market-driven economy, reducing every determination and experience to capitalist, bottom line considerations.
According to a 2016 Gallop poll, 58% of Americans were in favor of a single payer, Medicare-for-all style health care system to replace Obamacare. And the reasons are not hard to understand. The flaw in Obamacare from the beginning was in trying to strike a balance between profits and people. In the end, the neoliberal corporatist in Obama prevailed, allowing the promised “public option” to die at the hand of a Democrat: former Senator Joe Lieberman. Politics, we were told, is hard. Hard on whom is the question.
The difficulty in revamping America’s health care system that Trump was whining about is rooted in the never-quenching demands of a profit-driven system that capitalizes on illness. And those opposing forces, societal health and corporate wealth, are on full display in the Republican proposal to repeal and replace Obamacare, which tilts the scales far in favor of profits. While Obamacare is unsustainable, the proposal to replace it is simply unjust, as the poor and low income Americans who gained health insurance coverage under Obamacare would likely be kicked to the curb by Republicans. As they see things, if you want health insurance, get off your lazy ass, make some money and purchase some. Or, in Nancy Reagan parlance, just get rich.
What’s not hard to see in America’s health care crisis is the fork in the road. But taking that turn requires action. One such action is signing on with the Health Over Profit movement pushing Michigan Rep. John Conyers expanded Medicare for All bill H.R. 676. What’s not hard to see is how “voting with your fork,” as food writer Michael Pollan says, by choosing local farms and green markets over Whole Foods and the like, favoring fresh foods over packaged “organic” products makes sense. Still, the latter here considered, these are luxury options, out of the reach of many low income, inner city, rural and Native American communities. These communities can’t be left behind as fodder for sellers of junk food, payday loans and for-profit prisons, the most reprehensible expressions of capitalism.
All told, what’s not hard is to see how the neoliberal, capitalist cult governing America is antithetical to human health and environmental sustainability. I’m reminded of the Great Law of the Iroquois, which implored that “in every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation… even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.” That notion is as antithetical to the compact of capitalism as night is to day, but an essential guiding star for a sustainable path forward. The moment of decision is at hand. It’s difficult, but not so hard.
You gotta eat
You gotta drink
You gotta feel something
You gotta worry
But it’s so hard, it’s really hard