Profit and Health Crossfire: Analyzing Martha Rosenberg’s ‘Big Pharma, Big Food, Big Lies’

In “Big Pharma, Big Food, Big Lies,” Martha Rosenberg takes a sweeping view of the food and drug industries in America and the implications this has for the health of Americans.

Fundamentally, this is a book about the impact of advertising on products that are more than just toothpicks or pencils, as the late Paul Smith, attorney involved in litigation related to Eli Lilly’s Prozac (fluoxetine) and suicides once put it to me.

These companies approach advertising of their products, however, in the same way that companies would toothpicks and pencils: Putting the greatest emphasis on maximizing profits and increasing sales.

Nexus of Profit and Health

The companies use the façade of caring about their customers (promoting health through medications or healthy foods) as another tactic in their sales campaigns. In private, they might argue that as corporations their duty is to their shareholders, which justifies their relentless drive for profitability.

But is that all there is?

I think Americans are coming to the realization that the rubric or duty to shareholders is inadequate. A quick look at these industries suggests cause for concern.

America – Europe Comparison

Consider a comparison of America to Europe.

Americans pay twice as much for prescription medications as Europeans and yet our healthcare outcomes are worse.

We eat genetically modified foods or meat from animals that have been subjected to stressful environments and over-exposure to antibiotics, growth hormones, and other pharmaceuticals that impacts us in ways that we cannot know because the 40-year followup studies on the effects of these products on our health have never been done.

Meanwhile, Europe has banned many American food products because they correctly point out they cannot be sure of what their citizens will be ingesting.

Negative Health Outcomes

Overall, Rosenberg’s book on the surface looks like journalistic expose positioned to arouse indignation, but a more careful look shows a systematic and carefully referenced listing of ways the advertising impulses of pharmaceutical and agriculture corporations has led to negative health outcomes for Americans.

The story of the marketing of a low bone mineral density score, seen in half of women over age 50, as the disease of osteopenia requiring massive screening and treatment with bisphosphonate drugs, leading to the outcome where the drugs halt bone turnover and ultimately lead to an increase in bone brittleness, is but one of many cases in point.

Although I have read extensively in this space, there were some big ticket items I was unaware of, such as the story of genetically modified salmon, with multiple health and ecological implications, as well as implications for how industry, through revolving doors, and political pressure, affects the regulatory environment.

As someone who has been a long-term critic of the pharmaceutical industry, I disagreed with some conclusions about how combat veterans were necessarily made worse from being treated by more than one psychotropic medication, or the implication that suicides in veterans was driven primarily by selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) and/or Seroquel (quetiapine).

As one veteran told me early in my career as a psychiatrist, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is caused by the trauma of war, and the ultimate treatment is the elimination of war.

The potential risks of SSRIs and other psychotropics for suicide, however, especially in my experience during rapid changes in dosage, is something my psychiatric colleagues have been remiss in acknowledging.

Excellent Resource

Overall, “Big Pharma, Big Food, Big Lies” is an excellent resource whose depth of information is belied by the catchy title.

Martha Rosenberg’s most recent book, published in October, is Big Food, Big Pharma, Big Lies.

Read these two related stories about the new book:

Direct-to-Consumer Advertising: Are You Sure You’re Not Sick?

The Fall and Rise of Pink Slime and Faster Meat Packing Lines.

big food big pharma big lies. book cover by Martha Rosenberg.
Big Food Big Pharma Big Lies book cover by Martha Rosenberg.