Wednesday, March 27, 2013

If it's 'safe,' put it on the label

By Bob Gaydos
Is our corn genetically modified?

A few weeks ago I wrote a column that proclaimed, “Turns out, you really are what you eat.” For me, in the midst of changing to a more healthful diet, that statement is truer than ever. The problem is, it is getting harder to know exactly what we’re eating and the mega-companies that produce the food we eat are going out of their way to keep it that way. They’re also getting a lot of help from politicians, who bemoan rising health costs and obesity on the one hand, but don’t seem eager to learn if, just maybe, the food we eat has something to do with both. Guess it depends on who’s buttering your toast.
Disclaimer: While I have significantly modified my diet to a more   healthful emphasis on non-meat foods and organic food, I am not a vegan or vegetarian. I believe all living things, including animals, are entitled to humane treatment and that animals who are pets or companions should not be used as food. Period.
I also believe that we humans are entitled to know as much as possible abut the food being offered to us, including any changes made to the original product. Then we can make whatever decision we want, informed or uninformed, as long as we have a fair chance. That’s what this is about.
This week, President Obama, following the lead of a bought-and-paid for Congress, signed into law what has come to be known as the Monsanto Protection Act. Big mistake.
Much of the president’s political support has come from voters who believed his stated commitments to openness in government and a healthier, more informed citizenry. This swoop of his pen calls much of his rhetoric into doubt. In brief, the so-called act is actually one turgid paragraph buried in the homeland security section of a huge budget bill. It allows Monsanto, which did an all-out lobbying effort to get Congress to stick the paragraph in the bill, to plant genetically modified crop seed without any court reviewing whether or not it is safe.
Genetically modified crops are hardier, more resistant to pesticides and produce more product in less space. Through review of the gene-modifying process, the government says, it decides if they are safe for human consumption.
So ask yourself: Why then is it necessary in the first place for a food giant to want protection from having to prove its “safe” food is safe?
Correct answer: Money. It costs a lot to pay lawyers to defend you  in court. Even mega-rich companies like Monsanto try to avoid court costs. Also, any doubts raised about the safety of a food product -- cereal, bread, beef -- is bound to hurt sales. More money.
This has far more to do with Monsanto’s bottom line than homeland security. And the fact that nobody can be 100 percent sure the genetically modified organisms are, in the long run, safe.
Now, a lot of apparently intelligent people say publicly that the GMOs are indeed safe for us to eat. I don’t discount this out of hand. As I said, this is about letting us, not some high-priced lobbyist, decide what food we want to eat and what food we’d just as soon avoid. (Obama has also appointed a former Monsanto executive as his food safety adviser.) If GMOs are so safe (may European nations have banned them), then label them and let the president give a personal testimonial on the label if he wants. “Mmm mmm good, says Barack.” Just let me know what I’m eating.
Or drinking.
The other current labeling issue involves milk, which we are told from birth is good, even necessary, for our good health, and aspartame, which, well, let’s say has had some issues.
The dairy industry has asked the Food and Drug Administration to allow it to remove front-of-package labeling on flavored milk products that proclaim “low calorie” or “artificially  sweetened.” These milk products, especially chocolate milk, are big with kids, but they are drinking less of it and industry executives think the front labels may scare them off.
Again, money.
Actually, it’s more likely the labels scare off parents who then look at the ingredients and see aspartame has been added for sweetness. Just to be clear -- aspartame is already in these products and listed in the ingredients. That will not change. The milk people just want it to be less obvious and to continue to label the products “milk” without any of that annoying added information.
Now, to start with, using artificial sweeteners as an argument for improving the health of children is specious. The sweeteners are so much sweeter than sugar (aspartame is 200 times sweeter) that they increase children’s appetite for other sweet foods. And school officials are not keen on kids being targeted this way and not being absolutely clear as to what they are offering in their cafeterias.
A chemical concoction, aspartame (once sold as NutraSweet) has been a controversial product from the start. Still, while being mentioned in connection with many health concerns (including brain cancer), aspartame has been found to be safe for human consumption in the United States and more than 100 other countries. For proof, check your diet soda’s ingredients.
The point is, they still call it diet soda or low-cal whatever, meaning you might want to check the ingredients to see what makes it so tasty. Just like you might want to check your milk product. Or not.
We Americans like to think of ourselves as savvy and independent consumers. We also say we revere science and aspire to good health. Yet we rank near the bottom of the world rankings for science students and near the top for obese ones -- and health care costs. Maybe we should connect those dots.
Meantime, just give us all the info on the food we get and let us decide for ourselves if we want to eat it.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

These pills are killing more than pain

(The full version of my latest Addiction and Recovery column in the Times Herald-Record.

By Bob Gaydos
Painkiller pills have dominated the news on addictive drugs over the past month:

  • A report from the Centers for Disease Control printed in the Journal of the American Medical Association stated that prescription drug overdose deaths had increased for the 11th straight year, with pain killers such as Oxycontin and Vicodin being the chief culprits in 75 percent of the deaths, most of which were not suicides, according to the report.
  • A new law, aimed at fighting “doctor shopping” for hydrocodone, an addictive opiate that is the main ingredient in many popular pain medications, took effect in New York state. The law elevates hydrocodone from a Class III to a Class II drug and establishes an electronic database for prescription pain medications, accessible to doctors and pharmacists. It also places stricter requirements on obtaining and filling prescriptions for them, including eliminating automatic refills.
  • In the Town of Woodstock, N.Y. , Wayne Longmore was stripped of his medical license after pleading guilty to writing thousands of prescriptions for non-medical use of hydrocodone.
  • A Rockland County, N.Y., doctor, David Brizer -- dubbed “Dr. Feel Good” -- was indicted on 55 counts for allegedly selling thousands of prescriptions for painkillers to drug dealers in Rockland and in Manhattan.

All of this adds up to the inescapable conclusion that prescription pain medications -- legal drugs -- have rapidly become a major drug addiction problem, as the CDC indicated. Hydrocodone is especially troubling since it is, in effect, legally prescribed heroin. Those who become addicted to it, whether by becoming too dependent on it while dealing with legitimate pain issues or, as with many young people, by stealing it from their parents’ medicine cabinets, sometimes turn to heroin itself, because it is cheaper than the pain medications.
Several issues arise from this conflux of stories. Among them:

  • The medical community needs to do a much better job of teaching its members about the risks of prescribing addictive pain medications too readily. Individual doctors need to do a better job of monitoring their patients’ use of the medications, while also making sure not to make life even more painful for those who truly need the medications.
  • Society needs to rely less on legislation to deal with drug addiction and focus more on getting better educated on the subject. For example, New York’s new law, while well-intended as a way to fight addiction to painkillers by reining in pill-liberal doctors, may also increase the cost of the drugs to consumers and will probably make life more difficult for those, such as cancer patients, needing regular pain medication prescriptions. It is also likely to send some people to the streets to buy cheaper heroin instead. Also, parent groups have complained that, while the state has focused on cutting off the easy flow of pills, it doesn’t have enough drug rehabs to treat young people addicted to prescription medications.
  • Treatment specialists say parents need to pay closer attention to their prescription medications at home and not assume that their teen-aged children will not steal them. They urge parents to talk to children about the dangers of abuse and of mixing the pills with other medications, a major factor in the deadly drug overdoses.

So, more laws? More education? More treatment? As society continues to struggle with finding the best approach to reducing addiction to pain medications, perhaps the most important thing everyone can do to reduce the number of fatal medication overdoses is learn to recognize the signs of addiction to prescription painkillers:

  • Continued use of the drug, even after the pain has ceased.
  • Complaining about vague symptoms to get more medication.
  • Lack of interest in treatment other than medications.
  • Using prescription pills prescribed for others
  • Physical withdrawal symptoms when doses are missed.
  • Flu-like symptoms, such as joint and muscle aches and insomnia.
  • Mood and behavior changes, such as becoming agitated or anxious.
  • Secretive or deceitful behavior trying to obtain the drug.
  • Using more than the recommended amount of medication.
  • Developing a high tolerance, requiring more pills for the desired effect.
  • Withdrawal from family, friends and society.
  • Financial problems associated with buying ever more pills.