Sending sacred cows to slaughter

Most Americans believe strongly that our “free” and “independent” media is one of our nation’s greatest strengths. We’re also proud of the tremendous importance our society places upon individual human life. One wrongful death can sometimes provoke weeks or months of massive media coverage, even nearly 24/7 on certain cable “news” channels. The ultimate “human interest story,” if you will. And sometimes, the media is able to galvanize the nation into corrective action.

With ingrained perceptions like these, we tend to view ourselves and our society as superior to other countries. Like China, for example.

With well over one billion people, China is still a relatively poor land. Ruled by a ruthless Communist Party which controls every aspect of daily life—including the media. And which, at least in our conventional estimation, values power more than human life.

But two of the greatest public-health scandals of the last few years should raise doubts about our self-congratulatory beliefs in our media. And the value we really place on human life in our society.

The circumstances of the Vioxx scandal I’ve written about before (The Deadliest Drug in History) were exceptionally egregious. With potentially half a million American deaths due to the sale of a highly lucrative but frequently fatal drug. Whose harmful effects had long been known to its manufacturer. Yet there is no sign that criminal charges were ever considered.

Now consider the details of the Chinese infant formula scandal that arose just a few years later, in 2008.

Unscrupulous businessmen had discovered they could save money by diluting milk products, then adding a plastic chemical compound—called melamine—to raise the apparent protein content back to “normal” levels. As a result, nearly 300,000 babies throughout China suffered urinary problems. Hundreds required hospitalization for kidney stones. Six died.

A wave of popular outrage swept past the controlled media roadblocks and initial government excuses. And soon put enormous pressure on Chinese officials to take forceful action against the wrongdoers.

China’s leaders may not be democratically elected, but they pay close attention to strong popular sentiment. Once pressed, they quickly launched a national police investigation. Which led to a series of arrests and uncovered evidence that this widespread system of food adulteration had been protected by bribe-taking government officials. Long prison sentences were freely handed out. And a couple of the guiltiest culprits were eventually tried—and executed. Measures that gradually assuaged the public’s anger. (Indeed, the former head of the Chinese FDA had been executed for corruption in late 2007 under similar circumstances.)

Compare these consequences with how the Vioxx scandal was handled in this country…

Senior FDA officials apologized for their lack of effective oversight. And promised to do better in the future. But what about the powers-that-be at Merck responsible for covering up the risks when they were initially discovered? What happened to them?

Did any of these corporate bigwigs lose their jobs? Or even suffer any penalties?

The year after the scandal unfolded, Merck’s long-time CEO resigned and was replaced by one of his top lieutenants. But he retained the $50 million in financial compensation he had received during the previous five years of the Vioxx disaster. In fact, none of the individuals behind Merck’s deadly decisions apparently suffered any serious consequences.

Throughout the events in China, American media coverage was extensive. Front-page stories ran in leading newspapers for months. Journalists discovered that similar methods of dangerous chemical adulteration had been used to produce pet food for export. And many family dogs in America had suffered or died as a result. With heavy coverage on talk radio and cable news shows, phrases such as “Chinese baby formula” or “Chinese pet food” became angry slurs. Tainted formula and pet food became the benchmarks of endemic corruption of Chinese society. And there was talk of banning whole categories of imports from China.

However, the American media reaction had been quite different during the earlier Vioxx scandal. Newspapers, magazines, and major television networks may have temporarily lambasted Vioxx. But, behind the scenes, they continued collecting every penny Merck was willing to spend on advertising its other drugs.

Of course, there are obvious mitigating differences between these two responses. The Chinese victims were children. And their sufferings were directly linked to the harmful intentionally adulterated compounds that they had ingested. By contrast, the American victims were almost all elderly. And there was no means of proving that a particular heart attack had been caused solely by Vioxx.

But for a moment, let’s just consider the raw numbers involved. A half-dozen fatalities in China led to massive, ongoing media coverage. As well as numerous prison sentences— and even executions—for those responsible.

Yet the premature deaths of as many as half a million American citizens sparked short-lived outcry. Which has long since faded from the public’s collective memory. And the corporate and government bureaucrats responsible for colluding in these deaths? They got away scot-free. Without so much as a slap on the wrist.

It’s obvious that despite the values we hold so dear, our sacred media is neither “free” nor “independent” enough to help obtain the kind of justice that, when harmed, the citizens of the Peoples’ Republic of China demand. And human life in this country, when it comes to mainstream medicine, is more of a commodity than anyone might care to admit.