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Pimping Public Health for Profit

January 13, 2013

Book Review

‘Born with a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks, and Hacks Pimp the Public Health’
by Martha Rosenberg
Prometheus Books


Born with a Junk Food Deficiency is a thoroughly researched and documented exposé of what Big Food, Big Ag, and Big Pharma are doing to us, to animals, to the environment, and to our ways of practicing business, medicine and democracy, all in the name of Big Profit. The author, independent investigative journalist Martha Rosenberg, told me in a telephone interview that she took seven years to do the research and another year to write and illustrate the book. What emerges from Rosenberg’s research is a no-holds-barred indictment of corporate control over some of the most intimate aspects of our lives: The food we eat and the medicines, especially psychiatric medicines, we take.

Despite the title, the first part of Born with a Junk Food Deficiency is all about prescription drugs. The first chapter, “When the Medication is ready, the Disease (and Patients) will appear—OR when TV makes you sick,” takes us on a journey through the history of pharmaceutical advertising, from ads in professional journals such as the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in the ‘50s and ‘60s, though the current Direct-To-Consumer advertising (DTCA) on television touting medications for every condition from seasonal allergies to bipolar disorder. DCTA is legal only in New Zealand and the United States, which first allowed it in 1997. Rosenberg shows that these ads are heavily sexist and ageist and that in the effort to develop new markets, the pharmaceutical industry has developed a population that sees itself as ill. People self-diagnose on websites, then report to their doctors demanding the latest advertised drug, sometimes with a coupon in hand.

According to data mentioned in an article on DTCA in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, the top 25 best-selling advertised drugs grew 43% in sales compared to a little over 13% for all other drugs. Rosenberg states in her book that doctors have had to take classes in refusal skills to deal with these patients. The physicians who effectively use what they have learned in those classes may find themselves losing patients (i.e. customers) as the rise in Internet pharmacies allows patients an end-run around recalcitrant physicians. Patients requesting advertised drugs add to total US healthcare costs because these advertised drugs are typically more expensive than generics or non-advertised brands. But a more important and disturbing trend is the American tendency to seek answers in a pill. According to About.com, nearly 4 billion prescriptions were written in the United States in 2010. Rosenberg says that there are many lifestyle changes, political activities and other non-medical solutions to our problems. Born with a Junk Food Deficiency will make a significant impact if it gets people to realize that medicalizing our social ills is the wrong prescription.

Succeeding chapters titled “Fragile Handle with Risperdal…and Seroquel and Zyprexa and Geodon” and “Weapons of Hormonal Therapy” raise two serious questions: Are we pathologizing normal childhood and old age, especially menopause? According to Rosenberg, a substantial percentage of youth and adolescents are long-term users of prescription drugs. If you are over 40, just consider the number of ADHD (Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder) diagnoses that have been made in your lifetime—perhaps your children or their classmates are among them. Do daydreaming or fidgety kids really need expensive drugs that change their brain chemistry and are difficult to withdraw from? Rosenberg writes that the incidence of breast cancer in the US dropped in tandem with the drop in women pursuing Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) after findings of studies were released in 2002 and 2003 linking the therapy with increases in that disease and several others. Why should women take drugs linked to cancer, stroke, heart attacks and blood clots, just because they are growing older?

Of course, sometimes people really do become ill, due, in part, to our junk food diets. But the problem is not just too much soda and a sedentary lifestyle. Sometimes the problem is the chemicals with which Big Ag has adulterated our foods, especially our animal products, to make the most money in the shortest amount of time. A recent Agence France Press article, about the southern region of the U.S. being the most obese in the country, cast the blame on “cliché” Southern foods such as fried chicken and fried okra. As I pointed out to Rosenberg in our interview, these foods had been popular in the South long before the obesity epidemic. She agreed with me, and pointed out a particular fact she reported in Chapter 9 of her book, which is titled “The drugstore in your meat”: “…[C]hickens were once slaughtered at 14 weeks old, when they weighed about two pounds, but by 2001, they were slaughtered at seven weeks, when they weighed between four and six pounds.” (Hint: cooking does not rid the meat of growth-promoting hormones, and the antibiotics the animals are fed.)

Drugs in our food are a major health concern for the people who eat them. In the chapter “The Drugstore in Your Meat”, Rosenberg writes about the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2007 (PAMTA), which was introduced by the late Sen.Ted Kennedy (D-MA). Rosenberg states that, according to the bill, over 70 percent of antibiotics go to livestock, not to people. This overuse of antibiotics in agriculture later renders the drugs useless for people who have been ingesting them unknowingly. Even vegetarians are not able to avoid these antibiotics; researchers are finding them in soil. Crops such as corn, lettuce, potatoes, green onions and cabbage have been found in university studies to harbor antibiotic residues. Rosenberg has read the studies, has talked to some of the researchers, has paid attention when news media has covered stories such as the resistant MRSA bacteria and has thoroughly documented her findings. She explains in plain English what would be difficult for a non-scientist to understand from a technical report.

Rosenberg, herself a vegan, devotes Chapter 8 of Born With a Junk Food Deficiency, titled “‘Eggsposés’ and Teflon Chicken Dons” to the cruelty involved in the egg and chicken industries as well as the health problems associated with eating eggs. The actual health benefits and deficits of eggs are controversial matters, but animal cruelty is not. Rosenberg describes in detail debeaking, battery cages and denying hens food to jump-start another egg-laying cycle, a practice known as forced molting, as well as other conditions on factory farms. That chapter gives even a dedicated chicken eater like me pause to question whether I am doing the right thing, for my health and my sense of ethics.

For me, the best things about Born with a Junk Food Deficiency are the sometimes sarcastic, sometimes rhetorical, but unfailingly thoughtful questions Rosenberg poses throughout the book, such as the two at the top of this review. They prod the reader into thinking about the issues. Thinking may lead readers to action, whether it is changing buying and eating habits, seeking out more natural, holistic forms of treatment for physical or mental disorders, or engaging in forms of political activism for campaign finance reform, lobbying reform or other changes that will decrease the influence of corporations and their money on our political system. If you doubt the connection between campaign finance reform and lobbying reform on the one hand and government policies concerning our food and medical systems on the other, you need only read Rosenberg’s accounts of the relationships between Big Food, Big Ag, Big Pharma and the government that appear throughout the book. They’re chilling.

Taxpayers, veterans, and those considering entering the military should be aware of the fact that the Pentagon has become a dependent of Big Pharma. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are common results of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military response is to pass out expensive pills like Seroquel and Risperdal as if they were candy, whether or not they are truly effective. In her chapter, “The War after the War,” Rosenberg reports that according to the veterans’ advocacy group Lest We Forget, “Drug refills… arrive in the mail with no explanation, no doctor supervision, and sometimes no diagnosis, almost ensuring self-medication and overdoses.” This chapter alone is of great use to families and other advocates of veterans, and to peace activists, for whom medical (mis)treatment of combat veterans is another reason to be against war. Even taxpayer groups concerned about the national deficit should find the contents of this chapter to be a strong economic argument against expensive American militarism.

Certain books are for certain people. Born with a Junk Food Deficiency is for people who eat, use prescription drugs, have or intend to have children, or care for or expect to care for aged parents. People who are concerned about women’s health, veterans’ health, animal welfare, consumer rights, truth-in-advertising, state or federal budget crises, or the undue influence of corporate money on democratic governance also will want to read this book. Additionally, given that the food and pharmaceutical corporations that are mentioned in the book are transnational, I would recommend it to anyone in the world who reads English.


Martha Rosenberg’s articles can be read on Intrepid Report. Kellia Ramares-Watson, an Intrepid Report Associate Editor, is an independent journalist in Oakland, California.


2 Responses to Pimping Public Health for Profit

  1. liberalvoice on March 1, 2013 at 6:59 pm

    Strengthen the FDA. Require, under severe penalties, honest labeling and require those labels to warn when ingredients have been determined to be a health risk. And stop allowing food manufactures to say “No Trans Fats” or “Zero Trans Fats” when they merely contain a tiny fraction less than half a gram per serving. It’s still there.

  2. JasonR on January 19, 2013 at 7:20 pm

    Conservative conceptions of Capitalism make the ‘bottom line’ the de facto philosophy of American business and conservative politics. There is little concern within that framework for human health and happiness, except to keep the human machines running.

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