November 27, 2007
Aspartame: Sweet Little Lies, Sept 07 issue
How a popular artificial sweetener in all diet drinks,
“sugarless” gum, low-fat icecream and a host of “sugar-free” diet, fitness and drug products, is probably creating health problems for a good number of New Zealanders and Australians, argues campaigner CHRIS WHEELER
In 1987, a leading scientist issued a grim warning about the key ingredient in a wide range of food products: “I am a Pediatrician, a Professor of Pediatrics at Emory, and have spent 25 years in the biomedical science, trying to prevent mental retardation and birth defects caused by excess phenylalanine…I have considerable concern for the increased dissemination and consumption of the sweetener, aspartame, (1-methyl N-L-a-aspartyl-L- phenylalanine) in our world food supply.
“This artificial dipeptide is hydrolyzed by the intestinal tract to produce L-phenylalanine which in excess is a known neurotoxin. Normal humans do not metabolize phenylalanine as efficiently as do lower species such as rodents and thus most of the previous studies in Aspartame effects on rats are irrelevant to the question, ‘Does phenylalanine excess occur with Aspartame ingestion?’”
Professor Louis J. Elsas, II, M.D., Professor of Pediatrics, was testifying before the US Senate Committee of Labor and Human Resources on the subject, “Nutrasweet: Health and safety concerns”, November 3, 1987.
That was 20 years ago, and aspartame, or Additive 951, is still in use. As Elsas stressed at the time, the rat studies which were used to “prove” aspartame’s safety are inappropriate because human beings are not rats, a point which New Zealand and Australian food safety regulators, toxicologists, doctors and politicians still refuse to recognise. We, in possession of a bit more elementary commonsense, may choose to differ on the point of whether we are all being treated as the real laboratory rats by the time the sad – but also absurd – tale of aspartame is finally spelled out in these pages.
Rats are, of course, the basis of food safety science. We can’t afford to kill human beings in the course of supporting food industry profiteering. We use the poor rats – and dogs, cats, rabbits and monkeys – as part of our experiments that have seen some 80,000 toxic chemicals introduced for our “convenience” over the past 60 years by industry with often the barest attention paid to long-term health outcomes for actual human beings. Rats are – in a sense – our surrogate consumer advocates: they die on the Cross of science for our sins and bad science makes sinners of us all.
In the meantime it has often become difficult to find anyone in our immediate circle of friends who is really well, while a familiar pattern has developed of alarming new diseases and disorders developing at earlier and earlier ages alongside endemic infertility, an increased rate of birth defects and children and even babies falling sick with cancer – something previously unknown to our forefathers. But so familiar are we with the sea of synthetic chemicals washing around us we never attribute blame to them, in fact we even add them to our food to enhance flavour, “mouth feel”, smell, colour and, of course, sweetness – the thing we use aspartame for instead of ordinary old sugar or honey.
But what about our children?
Consider for a moment how many cities around New Zealand and Australia are opening new hospitals and setting up increased facilities especially for treating children who in ever-increasing numbers are going down with what used to be relatively rare adult diseases like diabetes, leukaemia, brain tumours and weird new diseases like autism and hyper-activity that turn tiny kids into monsters. Generations who had children before the 1950s would wonder why we so nonchalantly accept the huge toll of chronic disease in children that now exists, with so little comment and such apparent acceptance of the inevitable.
Meanwhile we carry on feeding ourselves and our children with the thousands of new convenience foods laden with a witch’s cauldron of chemical preservatives and additives, convinced by TV advertising and our faith in a vague common social mythology that neither our politicians, our health regulatory bureaucrats nor our complaisant food and beverage industries would deliberately poison us.
Worst of all, many of us are now feeding a new generation of human beings – our babies, our children and our pregnant selves – with a popular synthetic sweetener poison, aspartame/Additive 951 (also known as Nutrasweet, Equal, Spoonful, Benevia, Equal Measure, Canderel, etc), which has been reported in a long series of scientific, peer-reviewed studies as carrying the ability to maim, distort and disable intellectual and physical development from the foetal stage to adolescence.
In fact, over the 26 years that have passed since aspartame’s introduction into the world food chain we are now moving into generations of human beings whose parents and parents’ parents have been continuously exposed from breakfast to dinner-time to aspartame, monosodium glutamate and a baneful assemblage of human nervous system toxins that American neurosurgeon Dr Russell Blaylock has termed “excitotoxins”, chemical poisons that can over-excite the neural pathways to the point of nerve death. (1)
What is more, while we have finally accepted in our law courts and at a Government level that substances like Agent Orange, lead, and blue asbestos can medically disable particularly where long-term exposures are involved, we seem quite unable to extend that logic to the artificial dietary chemicals that we consume every day, year after year.
Little wonder then, that ill health and classrooms full of medicated children are part of normal, daily life and lunatic murders, road-rage, air-rage, depression and a steady media reportage of odd and irrational behaviour in people of all ages is just put down to “modern living.”
Unknown to most of us, and apparently ignored by the authorities we trust, aspartame use has been associated in the scientific literature with a huge list of medical and psychological disorders including irrational rage, headaches, numbness, fatigue, blurred vision and blindness, heart palpitations, brain lesions and tumours, memory loss, dizziness, muscle spasms, choking spasms, miscarriages, sexual dysfunction, irritability, anxiety attacks, vertigo, epileptic seizures, rashes, tachycardia, tinnitus, joint pain, nausea, mood alterations and depression, hearing loss, slurred speech, loss of taste, and insomnia, as well as eroding intelligence and short-term memory. It also helps trigger multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, chronic fatigue syndrome, Epstein Barr, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, mental retardation, lymphoma, and birth defects.
Since current Labour Party policy is recommending the use of diet products containing aspartame in our schools in order to counteract the growing obesity problem in our increasingly sedentary child population, we should pay attention to this recent warning from Professor Ralph G. Walton, M.D., Professor of Clinical Psychiatry, at the USA’s Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine:
To whom it may concern: Although undoubtedly well intentioned, any attempt to replace sugared beverages with aspartame containing diet products will, in my opinion, have a devastating impact on the health of our children and adolescents. The alarming increase in obesity, type II diabetes, and a wide variety of behavioural difficulties in our children is obviously attributable to multiple factors, but I am convinced that one powerful force in accentuating these problems is the ever increasing use of aspartame. Aspartame is a multipotential toxin and carcinogen. The dipeptide component of the molecule can alter brain chemistry, significantly changing the ratio of catecholamines to indolamines, with resultant lowering of seizure threshold, production of carbohydrate craving and in vulnerable individuals leading to panic, depressive and cognitive symptoms. The methyl ester component of aspartame is metabolized to methanol, which in turn is broken down into formic acid and formaldehyde. Methanol can lead to serious eye problems, formic acid and formaldehyde are potent carcinogens. The diet food industry and the F.D.A. (plus, also, our own NZFSA and FSANZ – ED) are fond of saying that aspartame is “the most studied product in history” with an outstanding safety record. In fact however virtually all of the studies in the medical literature attesting to its safety were funded by the industry, whereas independently funded studies, now numbering close to 100, identify one or more problems. It would be especially tragic if an attempt to improve the health of our children led to even greater exposure to this highly toxic product. Thank you for your attention to this urgent public health issue. Ralph G. Walton, M.D. Medical Director, Safe Harbor Behavioral Health Professor of Clinical Psychiatry, Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine Adjunct Professor Of Psychiatry Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine NOTE: Dr. Walton’s study on aspartame: “Adverse Reactions to Aspartame: Double-Blind Challenge in Patients from a Vulnerable Population,” is viewable on the website http://www.mindfully.org/Health/Aspartame-Adverse-Reactions-1993.htm and in the folder http://www.dorway.com/doctors.html#walton
Junk food addicts in Rotorua put a baby through a spin drier. Apart from “P” ("pure" methamphetamine), was Diet Coke involved? Aspartame reacts with methamphetamine to produce totally lunatic behaviour. The 2002 Lundy murders down in Palmerston North were committed by a husband and father, Mark Lundy, who slugged back over a litre of aspartame-containing beverages every day before finally murdering his wife and daughter. How many of the truckies and car drivers who regularly lose control of their vehicles on straight New Zealand roads or drive onto level crossings in front of approaching trains were consuming one or more of the aspartame products readily available on petrol stop counters? Airline pilots, using aspartame products to keep down their weight in a sedentary job, report suddenly experiencing dizziness and loss of spatial perception at critical points in landing planes filled with hundreds of the trusting public. Henri Paul, Princess Diana’s driver in that fatal Alma Tunnel car smash in Paris, was a heavy Diet Coke consumer and the medical drugs he was taking not only interact negatively with aspartame, but were prescribed in the first place to deal with symptoms probably caused by aspartame use. Tony Blair, George Bush and Bill Clinton all steadily consume Diet Coke according to the evidence of TV news clips. One could say Monica Lewinsky and the whole Iraqi bloodbath may have been influenced by the Clinton/Bush/Blair addiction to aspartame, a chemical closely connected to irrational behaviour.
Aspartame products like Diet Coke, Wrigleys gum, Lemsip, and Roche’s fizzy Vitamin B tabs are so constantly advertised on TV and present in our brainwashed lives that we take them for granted and never for a moment examine the hidden implications behind an additive our experts assure us is completely without blame.
And let’s not forget little Abby Cormack down in Wellington at this point. Her addiction to sugar-less Wrigley’s chewing gum with its direful health consequences occupied our media’s fleeting attention span for a few seconds in recent times. Of course the arrival of American anti-aspartame activist Betty Martini in support of Abby’s growing campaign wasn’t something our newspapers, particularly the NZ Herald, wanted to know about. The media, of course, can’t afford to rile Coca Cola or Wrigleys’ New Zealand representatives and their law hacks – their aspartame products bring in a huge advertising dollar.
In fact the one distinguishing feature of the short-lived anti-aspartame campaign last August/July (2007) was just how the New Zealand media steered clear of giving ANY space to the issue of what Kiwis could be doing to their health by making famous brand diet products containing a junk poison actually extracted from virtual raw sewage (genetically engineered E. coli bacteria are used to produce aspartame) part of their daily life.
The NZ Woman’s Weekly, which might be considered supportive of Kiwi women, even thought a story about aspartame hazards directed at women, who are the largest group consuming aspartame products, was somehow inappropriate given that their pages are usually devoted to much more serious issues like Paris Hilton’s stint in jail.
One shouldn’t expect the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) to take much interest in the issue. They refused to let Betty Martini speak (July 19) to their oddly-named Consumer Forum, which is stacked with people happy to act as a rubber stamp for Authority policy – policy which could be summed up under the rubric “Anything good for industry is good enough for the NZFSA.” Acting CEO Sandra Daly has herself confessed to using aspartame-containing products in firm belief in their virtue and the NZFSA vigorously defend the sweetener, convinced by all the shonky science from food industry junk “experts” and an American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) loaded down with ex-chemistry industry flakes that aspartame is the best thing since sliced bread. Regulatory authorities worldwide – even at the level of United Nations and European Union involvement – are hardly any better and seem to have a revolving door relationship with the chemical and food industries. Who else, after all, is going to give chemists and toxicologists the sort of salaries their university educations lead them to expect?
“Food is just chemicals” and “People are just chemicals” is the popular mythology inherent in a science and medical education these days, so why doubt aspartame, which, when all is said and done, never kills you straight away and is “just another chemical?”
Since I first became aware of problems being caused by aspartame back in 1990, I’ve been taken aback by the relaxed attitude of the science and medical community towards the whole chemical food additive and pesticide chemical residue issue as it relates to the human food chain. More alarming still is the manner in which ordinary people can put up with huge physical and mental damage from addiction to aspartame products like diet soft drinks without ever questioning the most obvious item(s) in their diet that could be causing the problem.
When I finally got to cross-examine Abby Cormack I was astounded to discover that sugar-free chewing gums were only the tip of the iceberg.
She’d been consuming aspartame products for a total of nine years and the gum was just the last straw to break the camel’s back and cause her total collapse into massive depression, muscular dysfunction, skin problems and other chronic symptoms that half a dozen medical specialists and numerous hospital visits could provide no answer to. Simply stopping her daily use of sugar-free gum produced an immediate initial cure. Now that she has been more than forty days free of ALL aspartame products practically all her medical symptoms have disappeared and Abby has become a leading New Zealand activist in a call from the Soil & Health Association, the Safe Food Campaign and the ADHD Association for a total ban on aspartame.
The whole aspartame issue becomes, in fact, a clear indication of the huge blind-spot we all collectively have towards the things we do every day and somehow it exposes a defect in our nature that even rats and other lower order species don’t appear to suffer from.
For unlike us, laboratory rats avoid aspartame wherever possible.
In fact when US corporate additive producer G. D. Searle (later Monsanto/Nutrasweet) and Food & Drug Administration (FDA) food additive regulators tried to force-feed the stuff to rats as part of the Mickey Mouse pseudo-science used to validate such additions to our diet worldwide, the rats – being much cleverer than us – carefully isolated the chemical grains of aspartame from the food it was mixed with and left the puzzled “scientists” and “experts” with neat little piles of the poison in the corner of their cages. Rats apparently don’t need experts to tell them what is safe. They rely on commonsense.
We are the laboratory rats!
Without a question of doubt, we are the real rats in the laboratory for a large number of food additive poisons in the food chain, but we are unlikely to be exposed to anything much more virulent and disabling than the scientifically established neurotoxin aspartame, (2) officially known as Additive E951 or 951 and technically defined as L-Aspartyl-l-phenylalanine methyl ester, 98%, aspartame CAS #22839-47-0, C14H18N2O5, which is now present as a sweetener in literally thousands of supermarket food and beverage products, as well as medicines and popular supplements. Patrol the shelves of your local supermarket, health shop and pharmacy and see for yourself. Look at the ingredient lists of your favourite foods and beverages and establish your own personal damage control.
Don’t expect much sympathy for your sudden interest in what goes into your food, least of all from our doctors, health authorities and politicians.
The only doctor in the whole of Oceania to stick her head over the parapets and condemn aspartame in public is Australian Sandra Cabot, in her Liver Cleansing Diet book series. And while Sue Dengate’s Australian food allergy activist group, the Food Intolerance Network (Website: www.fedupwithfoodadditives.info) covers a huge range of food additives and the problems they cause, aspartame only gets a mention among the huge list of other problem-causing chemical additives Sue has to deal with. Jenny Scott of the Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Association in Auckland and our long-standing health and organics campaign association, Soil & Health (publishers of “Organic NZ) are similarly stretched. Voluntary organisations simply lack the essential resources to carry out a job we actually employ the NZ Food Safety Authority and Food Standards
Australia New Zealand to carry out using our tax dollars.
In a society with citizens more concerned and knowledgeable about food safety, NZFSA and FSANZ wouldn’t last longer than the time it took to close down both offices and turn their collective staffs out onto the street. But we all currently seem to accept a vague social mythology that says both organizations are doing their job. Truth is, they are not. They rely solely on suspect data from the food industry and from official regulatory bodies like the FDA and European Union and United Nations food safety qangos, who defer to experts reliant on industry for employment and funding.
The simple fact is, paid employment defending the public’s interest in genuine, ethical food safety does not exist outside the odd Green-type political party as in Europe or New Zealand, where isolated politicians like our own Sue Kedgley are prepared to devote a large slice of their life to coming up to speed with the essential scientific and political background knowledge essential to understanding the nature of a chemical additive like aspartame.
The media, watchful for their industry advertisers, completely ignore the toxin and treat yours truly and the handful of food safety consumer activists like Jenny Scott, Meriel Watts, Alison White, Patricia Holborow and Sue Kedgley (the whole food safety issue is women-led), as obsessives with too much free time on our hands. It’s only the small band of phenylketonurics among us who pay attention to the only toxicity warning appearing on aspartame products – “PHENYLKETONURICS: Contains phenylalanine” or simply the term “phenylalanine”, which means nothing to the rest of us.
Phenylketonurics suffer from an inherited genetic disease known as phenylketonuria (PKU), a severe allergy to phenylalanine. They must be particularly careful about what they eat and normally follow a carefully tailored diet which excludes high protein foods. Their motivation comes from the fact that they can suffer permanent brain damage if exposed to the raw synthetic phenylalanine which comes as part of the complex aspartame molecule. For the rest of us it’s “just another additive” and “the Government wouldn’t allow that sort of thing if it was bad for us.”
Well, Governments regularly do some pretty stupid things, and remaining willfully ignorant about something you may be consuming every day which has a long history of fraud, shonky science, corrupt politics and health hazard is certainly not bliss – aspartame can kill and “death” is one of the outcomes underlined in court documents filed as part of major class action litigation against the aspartame-using food industry currently in progress in the USA. (3) About this course of events, however, the Australasian media has so far been completely silent. It’s a can of worms no one wants to open in this country where aspartame is in thousands of products and approved by Government edict.
The silence is also very much a phenomenon of our south Pacific isolation. Particularly since release of recent Italian data (4) on aspartame’s firm connection with cancer there has been growing involvement of Northern Hemisphere media in discussing
the issue. In fact ever since Professor Olney pointed to an increase in brain cancers in November 1996, drawing attention to a rising curve in brain tumours in the USA starting within a year of the introduction of aspartame/additive 951 in 1981, there has been growing concern in the science community over the continued presence of aspartame in popular diet beverages like Diet Coke and in Wrigley’s chewing gum and a host of Weightwatchers, fitness, health and diet products (read food and beverage labels for 951, “artificial sweetener” and/or “Phenylalanine” warnings).
This concern reached critical mass recently with the publication in peer-reviewed medical journals of two intensive studies by the Italian Ramazzini Foundation, in 2005 and 2007 (4), that demonstrated a clear connection between aspartame consumption and a variety of cancers including brain tumours – something that the very first research on aspartame in the 1970s indicated before aspartame approval became a political issue pushed through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) by the Ronald Reagan White House administration in payment for election campaign funding and support from the chemical industry (G.D.Searle and Monsanto in particular).
Of course in the normal, commonsense world where we, the ordinary public live, we should be able to say “Well, if there’s a problem over aspartame’s level of toxicity and other issues of potential hazard, we don’t want it in the food chain!” This is the sensible response. What nearly everyone in New Zealand – and certainly in NZFSA’s ironically-named Consumer Forum – doesn’t know, however, is how heavily politicised the whole issue of the original approval process for aspartame was under FDA governance.
Aspartame, as we have seen, is fully approved as part of our food chain by the combined regulatory agency, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) and our own NZFSA. FSANZ was formerly known under the rubric of ANZFA (Australia New Zealand Food Authority), but changed its name, according to popular Internet myth, because when you do a spell-check the suggested correction for ANZFA is always “unsafe”!
“Unsafe” is certainly the least of the criticisms one might make about Additive 951/aspartame. The synthetic sweetener rapidly breaks down in the human body into three chemicals hazardous to human health: – (1.) Aspartic acid, (around 40%); (2.) Phenylalanine, (around 50%); and (3.) Methanol (10%).
This breakdown process takes place spontaneously at a temperature of 30 degrees Celsius and happens immediately a diet product enters the human body (we operate normally at a temperature of 37 degrees).
Hence a can of Diet Coke exposed in those bins outside a service station on a hot day – a common sight anywhere in New Zealand and Australia – will already be laced with a cocktail of dangerous toxins as will any diabetic bakery and Weight Watchers product containing aspartame which has been heated in its processing. Any analytic laboratory can prove this point for you for a cost of less than $100.
The science behind methanol or “wood alcohol” toxicity is beyond debate. It’s something you learn about early in a chemistry training because it’s in every laboratory and is similar in some of its effects to ethanol, the ordinary drinking alcohol in all booze of whatever description. Easy access to methanol is a standing temptation at medical school and chemistry class parties, but it can blind you. Too much ethanol will normally only cause vomiting and loss of consciousness. Methanol is another story – it’s quickly absorbed through the stomach and small intestine mucosa and converted into formaldehyde, a severe poison and carcinogen. Then, via a process called aldehyde hydrogenase, it is converted to formic acid.
These two metabolites of methanol are toxic and cumulative. They can make you go blind and they can quickly kill you – which they do, often.
Anyone who consumes a litre or more of Diet Coke or some other aspartame-containing beverage per day is probably already near the limit for chronic methanol poisoning (6) and will be suffering muscle pain, headaches, migraines, sleep problems, dizziness and/or seizures, amongst other health problems. This is because aspartame breaks down extremely rapidly in a liquid form.
The well-known Hollywood actor, Michael J. Fox, sponsored by Diet Pepsi, has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.
He received free supplies of the sponsoring diet product. Parkinson’s is a well-diagnosed outcome from excess aspartame consumption, as is Alzheimer’s. Fox denies a connection to his Pepsi consumption, but aspartame and Parkinson’s – and Pepsi sales – flourish on such denials.
At the present time, in North America, there have been a rash of court cases and coroners’ court hearings over sudden deaths from acute methanol poisoning, which we, with our knowledge here, can connect to the chronic aspartame product consumption of the victims. Similar cases are probably occurring all over New Zealand and Australia, but may easily be attributed to other causes such as a heart attack unless a careful autopsy is carried out and a history of aspartame use discovered.
As this story was going to press the ad hoc group of activists publicizing Betty Martini’s anti-aspartame speaking tour of New Zealand main centres were collating records on the dozens of New Zealanders who have been contacting us over the severe medical problems they have been suffering due to addictive consumption levels of aspartame products like diet drinks and sugar-free gum. In every case they were completely let down by our conservative medical profession, who appear to be almost completely oblivious to the medical conditions caused by aspartame and listed earlier.
It’s the same story – and even worse – in the home of aspartame.
Chuck Fleming’s wife, Diane, is currently serving a 50 year sentence down in Virginia, USA, for supposedly killing him with a methanol overdose.
Chuck was a fitness fanatic, body builder and basketball player who drank litres of aspartame-containing diet drinks every day as part of his fitness routine and suddenly dropped dead – hardly surprising under the circumstances. The autopsy showed chronic methanol poisoning, enlarged heart, fatty liver, pulmonary oedema, etc – all symptoms of aspartame abuse. Police indicted Diane for poisoning her husband even though she helped them try and find out why he died and passed a lie detector test with flying colours.
Says methanol expert Dr Woodrow Monte (presently in retirement down in Tim Shadbolt’s Invercargill) “When diet sodas and soft drinks, sweetened with aspartame, are used to replace fluid loss during exercise and physical exertion in hot climates, the intake of methanol can exceed 250 mg/day or 32 times the US Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended limit of consumption for this cumulative poison.” (6)
Dr. James Bowen, an authority on aspartame toxicity, explains that the heart muscle is very sensitive to methanol alcohol poisoning and any stress on the muscle from such a source often results in sudden death. He says: “The aspartame molecule is an alcohol poison about 20,000 times as toxic a poison as ethanol (regular old sipping, or beverage alcohol) on a per weight basis.” (7)
NZFSA and FSANZ, secure in their ivory towers down in Wellington, simply say “this can’t happen.”
Methanol’s hazard is exacerbated by the presence of the two amino-acids Aspartic acid (aspartate) and phenylalanine, in the break-down of aspartame in the human body. These two synthetic toxins (in their aspartame form) have a multiplying or synergistic role in methanol chemistry inside our bodies, a role which is still being studied and discussed in the scientific literature.
But again, their independent role as toxins is not subject of debate unless you are an “expert” under contract to the aspartame-using food industry or, perhaps, a food safety regulator working for FSANZ or the FDA.
Phenylalanine in its synthetic form causes the most pernicious problems among aspartame addicts (Yes! It’s highly addictive!).
The amino-acid lowers the epilepsy seizure threshold in the human brain and depletes serotonin, triggering manic depression, suicidal tendencies, panic attacks, anxiety, insomnia, mood swings, paranoia, hallucinations and irrational rage. Airline pilots have a standard direction within their own inner circles and publications advising them to stay well clear of all diet products containing aspartame, following some alarming aspartame-induced lapses of control and judgement at the controls of passenger jet aircraft which have resulted in pilot-deregistration. (8)
Regarding the serious issue of who is in control of your airline flight to Sydney, the pilot or a diet drink, Dr Russell Blaylock warns “Some of the more common complaints (from pilots using aspartame products) include, disorientation, difficulty thinking and concentrating, visual blurring or even monocular blindness, seizures and heart failure. It is well known that the ingredients in aspartame, as well as its breakdown products, have deleterious effects on the nervous system and retina. For example, phenylalanine is a precursor of the catecholamine neurotransmitters in the brain and elevated levels in the brain have been associated with seizures.
It should also be pointed out that these catecholamines are metabolized to form other excitotoxins and peroxide products that can lead to elevated free radical formation and lipid peroxidation within the neurons. Likewise, aspartic acid (an excitotoxin) acts as an excitatory neurotransmitter and can lower the seizure threshold making a seizure more likely. The additive effect of aspartic acid and phenylalanine would significantly increase the likelihood of a seizure, especially under hypoglycemic conditions. This would occur if a diet drink is substituted for a meal, or if one is on a stringent diet.” (9)
The confusion our regulators suffer over aspartame’s potential hazard lies in a very common area of ignorance suffered particularly by toxicologists, dieticians and, in fact, anyone with an elementary background in university-level chemistry – the sort of people who, in other words, end up as “experts” in our national and state regulatory system. Both aspartic acid/aspartate and phenylalanine are common amino-acids found in nature in foods as well as in the human body. They are protein building blocks and wherever they occur in nature and in our diet they are always combined and accompanied by a huge array of associated bio-chemicals and substances with which our digestive system and physiology is entirely familiar.
They NEVER appear as independent ISOLATED amino-acids as they do in their aspartame break-down form, and in a healthy human body their complex action in the functioning of our brains and nervous systems is carefully monitored by a huge cellular system of biological checks and balances.
Like anything that may be OK in moderation, this system is quite unable to deal with the flood of free aspartic acid, phenylalanine and methanol resulting from direct aspartame consumption.
The human body, being the glorious mechanism that it is, will try to compensate, but under the steady assault from a poison like diet soft drinks, will eventually weaken and sicken with any combination of over a thousand symptoms.
Dr H.J. Roberts, author of a leading text on the medical damage caused by aspartame, Aspartame Disease: An Ignored Epidemic, has become an acknowledged world expert on aspartame poisoning, its diagnosis and treatment at his Florida clinic. He now lists over 1,400 medical symptoms and disorders triggered by aspartame, collated from the thousands of patients who pass through his clinic’s doors. His book itself is based on the detailed case histories of 1,200 patients whose symptoms of disease disappeared when aspartame was removed from their diet. He estimates:
“Hundreds of thousands of consumers, more likely millions, currently suffer major reactions to products containing aspartame. Today, every physician probably encounters aspartame disease in everyday practice, especially among patients with illnesses that are undiagnosed or difficult to treat.” (10)
Consumption – and particularly HEAVY consumption – of aspartame-containing food and beverage products, is the equivalent in logic of tipping a can of petrol over your car’s efficiently working engine and setting the whole engine compartment on fire! Of course, petrol drives a car’s engine, but it must be in the right place under the correct controls. In flames, the car may continue to run for a little while longer, but the fire will eventually consume it and put it off the road for good.
What our bodies are not familiar with and what our bodies cannot cope with and remain healthy are the three artificially-created chemicals that result from the immediate break-down of aspartame as it passes the 30 degrees C threshold – aspartic acid, phenylalanine and methanol. But none of this fazes our health regulators.
FSANZ and NZFSA say methanol appears in many items of normal diet, like fruit, without causing damage. But natural items of diet with a methanol content invariably contain ethanol, which is a natural buffer against methanol poisoning. (6) Aspartame products contain no such buffer. Ethanol is not present in aspartame. Our regulators appear ignorant of this elementary fact.
FSANZ and NZFSA deny that aspartame toxins can pass over the blood/brain barrier – a crucial point in understanding how aspartame toxins circulating in the blood can cross into brain cells and interfere in brain chemistry. Their assertion is based on seriously out-of-date aspartame “science” held in their standard database and used to answer public queries. The problem is that this “science” is based on shonky data proven some years ago to be the work of paid science hacks working for the aspartame industry. (11) However, the very fact that all aspartame products must – in theory – carry the “PHENYLKETONURICS: Contains phenylalanine” warning gives the lie to this claim from our regulators.
The synthetic phenylalanine overdose contained in aspartame easily crosses the blood/brain barrier just as the ordinary ethanol alcohol in our booze does and just as the toxins in all the other recreational drugs we consume, like “P”, Ecstasy, heroin, cocaine, etc, do. Our drugs of choice, in fact, would lose their popularity straight away if this mystical “blood/brain barrier” wasn’t so easily breached in the first place.
Under detailed cross-examination NZFSA and FSANZ representatives invariably fudge these issues and display denial symptoms and ignorance of the most basic facts about this toxin.
And it’s not just our own poorly-educated regulators and the American FDA who approve the product.
Tens of thousands of tonnes of aspartame are poured into the world food chain with the full approval of the World Health Organisation, European Union, and in fact every regulatory agency from here to China – the country which is presently competing with the USA to become the top supplier of aspartame on the planet. It seems we all can’t get enough of aspartame.
Aspartame, of course, is highly addictive, just like our other legal drugs, nicotine and ethanol/alcohol. What better way of ensuring huge annual profits to the food and additive chemical industries than by inserting a guaranteed, legally permitted and “scientifically approved” additive like aspartame into our supermarket food chain?
But it doesn’t get the rat vote! And with that curious intelligence displayed by “lower” species everywhere, cockroaches won’t eat it, cats and dogs won’t eat it, ants won’t eat it and flies won’t eat it – but politicians, food regulators and medical professionals worldwide consider it safe enough for us, and dutifully out here in God’s Own Country many of us are consuming it in such large quantities that the products are among top-selling supermarket items and the food industry is laughing all the way to the bank.
“Hundreds of thousands of consumers, more likely millions, currently suffer major reactions to products containing aspartame. Today, every physician probably encounters aspartame disease in everyday practice, especially among patients with illnesses that are undiagnosed or difficult to treat”.
Many diet products contain aspartame, though it's health effects have been debated throughout the years. Get some health information on artificial sweeteners to see how they may cause serious health problems like diabetes and obesity.
Of course the main reason aspartame is approved in New Zealand is because aspartame is approved in the United States. Aspartame is a heavily politicised issue because it is a major American corporate profit base worth billions of dollars and, as every New Zealand adult should know by now, we usually bend over backwards to please Uncle Sam.
We may pretend to be anti-nuclear, but even George Bush knows that’s a snow job kept in circulation to fox the natives. The USA maintains a major US National Security Agency spy base down at Black Birch Stream near Blenheim and US Central Intelligence Agency planes involved in “renditioning” suspected “terrorists” to torture chambers in North Africa and Afghanistan have been spotted flying in and out of the US Deep Freeze programme’s Harewood, Christchurch air base.
Sucking up to the USA is good politics. Monsanto and the corporate chemical industry have helped put every American president in power since the 2nd World War and good relations with the USA means keeping American corporates happy and ensuring their products pass through our regulatory process virtually automatically providing they have the FDA stamp of approval. In that respect NZFSA’s present acting CEO, Sandra Daly is kept completely in the dark. FSANZ is in the same position.
The immediate former US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, is a central player in the aspartame approval drama, funnily enough, and the full story of what happened is like an episode out of The Sopranos, but I’ll try to keep it brief.
The scene opens on January 10, l977. FDA Chief legal Counsel Richard Merrill has been considering the huge list of violations of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, committed by G. D. Searle under the administration of former Ford White House Chief of Staff, Donald Rumsfeld.
Rumsfeld has been trying to get his pet project, the super-sweet chemical aspartame, through the FDA’s approval process for a new food product.
Approval of the product is worth billions of dollars to Searle and a huge bonus for Rumsfeld. The problem is, the FDA’s scientific team consider the sweetener is a dangerous poison with the potential to kill. Not only this, but they have amassed a pile of evidence that Searle, with Rumsfeld’s obvious approval, have gone through vital laboratory test reports on aspartame safety, eliminating evidence that the product maimed, disabled and killed test animals.
All the evidence for Searle malpractice has been assembled by the FDA’s Jerome Bressler into an important document – now known as the Bressler Report – that anyone can read (it’s on the official Federal record and available on www.dorway.com). As a consequence, a Richard Merrill writes a 33-page letter, recommending to U.S. Attorney Sam Skinner that a grand jury investigate Searle for “apparent violations of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, 21 U.S.C.331(e), Act 18 USC 1001, for “their willful and knowing failure to make reports to the Food and Drug Administration required by the Act 21, U.S.C. 355 (i) and for concealing material facts and making false statements in reports of animal studies conducted to establish the safety of (aspartame).” The legal machinery creaks into action, but the whole process is hampered by the fact that the corporate chemical industry pretty effectively controls Washington.
In the meantime it’s suddenly January 21, 1981, the day after Ronald Reagan, a former B-grade Hollywood actor takes office as U.S. President.
He’s sailed into the White House on a huge raft of election funding from corporate America and G. D. Searle in particular and the word is out that he will not forget his friends. Donald Rumsfeld is still G.D. Searle’s president and a firm Reagan favourite. Rumsfeld has been greasing Republican palms all round Washington for the past few years and telling the Searle sales force “he would call in all his markers and that no matter what, he would see to it that aspartame would be approved that year.” (5)
That same day G.D. Searle reapplied to the FDA for the approval of aspartame despite the fact that up-to-date this approval has been denied pending the prosecution of the company. No problem.
Reagan and Rumsfeld already have a staunch Republican hack ready for the job as new FDA Commissioner – Arthur Hayes, who in short order overrules the FDA’s own board of inquiry who have refused to approve aspartame and gives the product the FDA’s stamp of approval.
It’s well-known in Washington circles, however, that aspartame is not just any old political FDA approval, but is, in fact, a general signal to corporate America that Reagan means business and Big Business at that. The signal in particular, tells Big Business that from now on all the brakes are off, tricky regulations about silly things like public health and safety are gone for good and “Let’s get together and make money, boys!”
Arthur Hayes is quickly bored by his job at the FDA, at any rate, and before too long goes off to work for notorious PR flack firm Burson-Marsteller, who just coincidentally, you understand, happen to be retained by G.D. Searle! At about the same time, Federal attorney Sam Skinner – remember, he’s the one who’s been assigned to prosecute Searle for fraudulent tests in their original aspartame application? – gets “an offer he can’t refuse” from – Guess who! – Searle’s lawyers! – and goes off to work for them for a reputed $US1,000 per day, effectively sabotaging the whole Federal case and, of course, effectively ending any litigation threat against Searle for its deliberately falsified aspartame data.
The whole debauched exercise is the start of a long-standing criticism of US federal authorities – and the FDA in particular – that they have a “revolving door” relationship with G.D. Searle, Monsanto and the chemical industry in general. And, of course, as far as NZFSA and FSANZ is concerned this whole shoddy exercise just never happened. But it did, and it’s recorded in US Senate records. (5)
1. Russell L. Blaylock, M.D., “Excitotoxins; The Taste That Kills”,
Health Press, Santa Fe, N.M. 87504, 1994.
2. John W. Olney and others, “Increasing Brain Tumor Rates: Is There a Link to Aspartame?” Journal Of Neuropathology And Experimental Neurology Vol. 55, No. 11 (November 1996), pgs.
1115-1123. James Bowen, M.D. “Aspartame Murders Infants in violation of Title 18, Chapter 50A, Sec 1091-3 of the Domestic Genocide Code” see
3. The suits were filed in Shasta, Sonoma and Butte County, California early in 2004. They allege that the food companies committed fraud and breach of warranty by marketing products to the public such as diet Coke, diet Pepsi, sugar free gum, Flintstone’s vitamins, yoghurt and children’s aspirin with the full knowledge that aspartame, the sweetener in them, is neurotoxic. Defendants in the lawsuits include Coca-cola, PepsiCo, Bayer Corp., the Dannon Company, William Wrigley Jr. Company, Walmart, ConAgra Foods, Wyeth, Inc., The NutraSweet Company, and Altria Corp. (parent company of Kraft Foods and Philip Morris).
4. Morando Soffritti, Fiorella Belpoggi, Davide Degli Esposti, Luca Lambertini, Eva Tibaldi, and Anna Rigano, Cesare Maltoni Cancer Research Center, European Ramazzini Foundation of Oncology and Environmental Sciences, Bologna, Italy, “First Experimental Demonstration of the Multipotential Carcinogenic Effects of Aspartame Administered in the Feed to Sprague-Dawley Rats,” Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 114, Number 3, March 2006;
5. Gordon, Gregory, 1987. “NutraSweet: Questions Swirl,” UPI Investigative Report, 10/12/87. Reprinted in US Senate report (1987, page 483-510).
6. Dr. Woodrow C. Monte, “Aspartame: Methanol and the Public Health,”
Journal of Applied Nutrition, Volume 36, 1984, No. 1, page 42-54.
7 See Dr James Bowen on www.dorway.com aspartame website.
8. “Aspartame – Not for the Dieting Pilot?” Aviation Safety Digest, Spring 1989; Hicks, M., “Nutrasweet … too good to be true?” General Aviation News, July 1989; “High on High”, Plane & Pilot, January 1990.
9. ASPARTAME AND PILOTS – Position paper by Russell Blaylock, M.D., neurosurgeon on www.dorway.com in section “Aviation Dr. Blaylock’s position paper on aspartame and pilots.” Also see http://www.russellblaylockmd.com.
10. Pat Thomas, “Aspartame – The Shocking Story of the World’s Bestselling Sweetener,” The Ecologist, Vol. 35, No.7, September 2005, pages 35 – 46.
11. Nisperos-Carriedo, Myrna O., Philip E. Shaw, 1990. “Comparison of Volatile Flavour Components in Fresh and Processed Orange Juices,” Journal of Agriculture & Food Chemistry, Volume 38, page 1048-1052.
CHECK THESE RESOURCES FOR FURTHER INFORMATION
For details of how to get aspartame out of your system check the Websites – www.dorway.com, www.wnho.net, and the Aspartame Toxicity Center, www.holisticmed.com/aspartame. A new video exposing the aspartame industry is “Sweet Misery: A Poisoned World”, available from Email: email@example.com, Tel (USA) – 520 – 624 -9710. Also see the medical text on aspartame: “Aspartame Disease: An Ignored Epidemic”, available online from www.sunsentpress.com or Tel (USA) 1 800 827 7991 H. J. Roberts, M.D. (along with other books and tapes). Dr Roberts’ book contains a chapter on trial lawyers and drug interactions since aspartame is a severely neurotoxic drug and class action litigation has already begun. See also books on aspartame by neurosurgeon Russell Blaylock, MD, “Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills”, and “Health & Nutrition Secrets To Save Your Life.” See websites above for details. The latter book tells aspartame victims what they have to avoid and why, and explains how a victim can re-build their immune system. Dr. Blaylock also has a book on Cancer Strategies.
With aspartame having caused so many tumours in original studies this is a helpful resource.
August 12, 2007
Teenage pregnancy: March 07 issue
A Brave Story and a Bitter Pill
With teenage pregnancy affecting women since the beginning of time, the choice is ultimately one that is hers to make. But with a new offering of hope and the controversial discussion around the new ‘abortion pill’ RU-486, this is a topic where every angle needs to be discussed. MELODY TOWNS reports
Walking up the corridor, Bernadette moved slowly towards the pink Wendy’s t-shirt that clung to the growing physique of her boyfriend Dave. Dressed in an identical shirt, Bernie and Dave were on their lunchbreak from the ice-cream parlour where they both worked, but there was something different about this break and with each step Bernadette took, she knew that both their lives were about to be changed forever. “I saw him differently”, says Bernadette, “He was a 16 year old boy about to be told he was going to be a father”.
When Bernadette Black was just 16 years old she, like 25,000 other teenage girls in Australia each year, was faced with a decision that would ultimately affect the rest of her life. Raised in a strict middle class Catholic home, Bernadette had always been the ‘good girl’, the girl she describes as “someone that you thought that this could never happen to”. Little did Bernadette realise the consequences of losing her virginity when she slept with her boyfriend for the first time in his bedroom while his parents were out. She says, “I found myself in an emotional pull towards Dave and, as a result, Dave and I had sex. I didn’t think about the repercussions of having sex, like the possibility of falling pregnant. I just assumed it wouldn’t happen to me. So, we had sex and the condom broke…”
Bernadette’s story is not an unusual one. With teenage pregnancy occurring since the beginning of time, this is a story that many women could relate to, despite whatever decision they make regarding their pregnancy. But Bernadette, now 30, has written a book that may surprise many. A story of a teenage mother who decided to have her child and, despite all odds, aim to make a success of her life. While being objective in saying that she is not placing any judgement on any decision that a teenage mother may make, Bernadette says the aim of her story is to present another outcome, one that is positive and has never been offered.
When I meet Bernadette, I am overwhelmed. She bounces up to me, wraps her arms around me and with a big beaming smile welcomes me into the waterfront pavilion where, today, she is getting all the attention for all the right reasons. It is like we are best friends, but we have only just met, the genuineness in her greeting something that seems surreal in the networking world of small smiles and meet-and-greets.
It is her book launch, the day that she has been working towards since she was 16. She is there with her husband, three children, a few politicians and a huge crowd of support. The media flocks around her as she shares her heart with the world and the day that so many thought would never arrive, is unraveling a new story of hope for all to see.
It is just over 12 years since the day that Bernadette made a pact with herself, despite constant criticism, that she would firstly, be a great mum, secondly complete her education and thirdly write a book to offer some hope to other girls who may and who do find themselves in this situation and decide to have their babies.
She was sitting in a mothers’ group when Bernadette conceived her dream that would see her persevere against all odds. “At the group there were many girls that had no support, their parents had disowned them and their partners had left them. These girls literally had no hope. We asked in our mum’s group if there were any books available that would be able to show us that we could be great mums regardless of our age. The nurse who ran this group said that there were no books ever written like this.”
Acknowledging that she did have the support of her family and the stability of a middle class background, Bernadette says she feels most passionate about the girls who may not be so lucky. “The amount of judgemental attitudes that some people displayed to me in society was huge, and I was with my mum and dad, but for these girls all they see is no hope, so thankfully this book and hopefully my website with the collaboration of education and health care will be a resource for them that they haven’t had access to before”.
Despite her success, Bernadette, now a trained nurse, has had to walk the hard road and empathises with other girls in this situation. Endorsing motherhood, but not sugar-coating the reality of it, Bernadette openly shares the way that she had to deal with society’s reactions and their constant disapproval of her. “I was very vulnerable, especially only being 16. I used to keep my head down to avoid people’s prying eyes. I wanted to wear a sign saying that I would be a good mum but it wouldn’t have mattered.”
Leaving room for only the truth, Bernadette describes how she felt at this time in her book. She writes, “I remember shopping at Myers for some foundation, and the shop assistant noticed my growing belly. She looked at me in disgrace saying, “Babies having babies”. I felt so inadequate, so unable, so scared. Who was I kidding?”
Going to a Catholic school and growing up in a Catholic home also proved to be a paradox for Bernadette. Although she had the support of her family, many of her friends couldn’t understand her decision, a decision that she says had a lot to do with her own beliefs. Well-meaning friends told her that she was going to ruin her life and kept asking why she wouldn’t have an abortion? “I fleetingly thought about having an abortion certainly”, says Bernadette, “however after I contemplated it a little longer I thought, “No, I can take this on. I have to take responsibility now to care for this child”, and that’s when I decided I would be a great mother”.
Dave was a great support despite the lack of encouragement he received from his family. Described by Bernadette as being very respectful, Dave supported her choice despite the critics and is still a big part of his son Damien’s life today. She says, “Early on his family had said to him that it would be better if I did have an abortion, and that was a very difficult thing. His mother had said to me that if I made this decision, then both Dave and I would make nothing of our lives and have absolutely nothing to offer our baby. At the time I felt stripped bare, like I had no defence, but I would not compromise my decision”.
Now as a mother, Bernadette says that she understands Dave’s family a little more. As a mother to 13-year-old Damien, Bernadette understands just how frightening it must have been for Dave’s family to have their son come to them and tell them that his girlfriend was going to have a baby. “For them, they’d never seen a girl who had succeeded in having a baby when she was 16; they’d seen a lot of girls that we all see today-their situations around them are often negative and when you only see negative things, then obviously your outlook can also be negative”, explains Bernadette.
“Everyone has their own personal beliefs and stances. To date in Australia, you can find out about pro-life, abortions, adoptions, the mini pill and the ‘abortion pill’ RU-486. One option that has not been presented to young mothers is a story like mine that shows you can be a young mum, continue with your pregnancy, and also have a fantastic, successful life.
With the controversy surrounding RU-486, or the ‘abortion pill’, this is one side of teenage pregnancy that needs to be told. Not political, not religious, just an offering of hope to thousands of girls faced with this life changing decision daily throughout the world. With what seems a relatively “harmless” option to surgical abortion being an issue of continual controversy between Australian politicians, RU-486 is another kind of ‘emergency contraceptive’, that women in the US, Britain, Canada and Sweden have as an option.
While the Australian parliament argues over whether or not this pill should be approved, every mother has a right to know every option that they may choose when faced with the decision of having a baby. While Bernadette’s story is one of the first offerings of hope to teenage mothers who decide to keep their child, the introduction of RU-486, whether you agree with it or not, has side effects that also need to be discussed to mothers in more depth.
An American website, standupgirl.com, offers a resource for young mothers and teenage pregnancies to discuss all aspects of pregnancy from abortion to pro life. In an article posted by one of its members named only as Mary, the ‘abortion pill’ is discussed as being linked with the death of 10 women since it was approved in the year 2000. What many don’t know is that the ‘abortion pill’, is actually two pills. Not as simple as just popping it in your mouth and waiting for it to go away, the first pill, Mifepristone, is taken to kill the tiny foetus and then a few days later, Misoprostol is taken to induce labour and expel the remains. But, as Mary writes, “with two or three visits to the doctor, an ultrasound, and the possible removal of the dead foetus, it’s not private. It’s not just contraception and it’s definitely not harmless”.
A study by Ralph P. Miech MD, PhD, describes the relationship between the drugs and the ten deaths. He states, “The first drug blocks progesterone, the hormone that tells the placenta to provide nutrition and oxygen to the baby. This causes changes to the cervix that allow c. Sordelli to enter the cervical canal. C. Sordelli thrives in the low oxygen environment and derives nutrition from the decaying foetal tissue. Meanwhile, it’s disrupting the immune system, so that even the woman’s body now becomes vulnerable to bacterial attack. Her body cannot fight the bacteria, and c. Sordelli and its toxic wastes spread throughout the body, causing widespread shock and sometimes death”.
Accessible to any woman under seven weeks pregnant in the approved countries, Danco, the leading American distributor of the drug claims that the deaths were not specifically caused by taking these pills. Their argument is that it cannot be proven that the drugs directly cause death, due to the fact that septic shock caused by c. Sordelli is possible in other circumstances including childbirth and menstruation. But the standard of safety still remains a concern, as the cause of death may not be from the pill but from the toxic shock caused by the remaining foetus that is not completely expelled from the uterus.
Describing the abortion pill as a waking nightmare, Mary states that “perhaps worse than all the bodily effects of RU-486 is the psychological effect”. Linked to a higher suicide rate for depressed women, the ‘abortion pill’ leaves no one to clean up the mess except for the mother herself. A horrifying image is presented by abortiontv.com on their website, stating that a “woman may find herself sitting on her bathroom floor at two in the morning cradling her tiny child in her bloody fingers”. While this may be considered extreme, the fact that unlike a surgical abortion where the foetus may be expelled not intact but rather in shreds, is a haunting reminder that this, like any decision regarding teenage pregnancy, or any pregnancy in fact, is something that cannot be taken lightly.
Information regarding all aspects of pregnancy is vital to teenage girls placed in a situation where a decision needs to be made. Without placing judgement on whatever decision they do choose, all information does need to be made aware to them. Whether it is an abortion that they choose to have, an adoption or like Bernadette a decision to have her child, every girl has a right to make an informed choice regarding something that will not only affect her body, but her mind and her life forever.
As Australian celebrity Marcia Hines states in the forward of Bernadette’s book Brave Little Bear, “I do not condone teenage pregnancy, please understand this, but in life things do happen…and it happened to me. Luckily Bernadette and I had support and as with anything in life if you have support and self-belief you’re going to make it. But please don’t make life any harder than it already is, and your teenage life is a gift. (And so is motherhood at the right time). If I could I would not change a thing and I’m sure Bernadette wouldn’t either, but precautionary measures is what it’s all about. However if you do fall pregnant, remember that you are no longer a child, you are taking care of a child.”
In the heat of discussion about RU-486 and the offering of hope from one teenage mum who aims to help others, lets remember that it’s life we are talking about here, and what every girl needs from society is not a judgement but a soft place to fall and the support and self-belief to get back up again, whatever her choice.
Brave Little Bear is being used in the young mothers’ program in Tasmania Australia and is under review by each state’s education department in the school curriculum. With its website, www.bravelittlebear.com.au, a dedicated resource to helping young mothers, Bernadette hopes that the incidence of teenage pregnancy will be reduced, but for now she wants to help the girls who are there walking this journey today. “What I’d like in this country is for these levels, 25,000 teenage pregnancies a year – to decrease. This is like a long term plan, it generations down the future, but what needs to happen to stop that generational cycle is that these girls, as I said before, they might see around them that all there is, is negative feedback, or just their circumstances: if they can grab that light or just that one bit of hope, then their child may not have a child at 16”.
March 09, 2007
LOST IN THE MATRIX INVESTIGATE: JUN 03
From Donald Duck to Donald Dark, is a new breed of cartoon a threat to our childrens’ mental health? IAN WISHART brings together research from around the world that suggests violent cartoons and interactive games are turning kids into killers...
Once upon a time there were cartoon shows. You remember them, Mickey and Donald, Roadrunner and Wylie Coyote, even Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig. Bright, bold and usually hilarious, those early Warner Brothers and Walt Disney hit shows had generations of kids cackling over their Cornies on a Saturday morning. Sure, they were violent, but in a harmless, toony sort of way. Back in those days, a burglary in Auckland was front page news, murders were running as low as three or four per year, and wagging school was an occasional "treat", not an occupational choice. Youth suicide was virtually unheard of. In 1972, the suicide rate for 15 to 24 year old males was just 9 per 100,000 of them. Today it runs as high as 39 deaths per 100,000 in that age group.
For a long time, media watchdog groups have claimed a link between television violence and aggression in teenagers and adults. Now the international studies are lining up thick and fast - not only is there a link, but some experts believe television has declared psychological warfare on children and is literally training children to kill, as you’ll see shortly.
But first, a clue to the problem can be found in the spin surrounding it. For years, New Zealand TV executives have denied any link between TV violence and violence in society. "We reflect society, we don’t lead it," has been the industry position for more than two decades.
However, while both TVNZ and TV3 have endeavoured to comply with a viewing watershed of 8.30pm before screening adult material, a much bigger problem has slipped below the radar for most people: the huge increase in violence and the occult in childrens’ programmes, screened directly in childrens’ viewing hours.
Donald Duck has given way to Beast Wars, Digimon and the latest craze hitting New Zealand, Yu-Gi-Oh. What most of the groundbreaking new childrens’ cartoon shows have in common are two things: Japanese animation and extremely dark, violent, occult and brooding themes.
Yu-Gi-Oh has already hit the news headlines in New Zealand after alleged counterfeit playing cards associated with the programme as merchandise were seized at Auckland by customs agents at the request of the authorised importer..
How dark is Yu-Gi-Oh? Well, for a start, it is unashamedly religious programming aimed at children, although admittedly no religion you ever grew up with. Instead, 41 year old Kazuki Takahashi, the show’s creator, wanted to revive "ancient Egyptian mysticism" as the underlying force in his programme.
The show follows the adventures of a young boy named Yugi:
"When Yugi was growing up, his Grandfather gave him an ancient Egyptian artifact called the "Millenium Puzzle" to try and figure out. It is said that whosoever manages to solve this puzzle will be granted dark and mysterious powers. Yugi eventually was able to solve the Millenium Puzzle, and when he did, something amazing happened!
"When the Millennium Puzzle activates, Yugi is filled with its magical energies and becomes Yami Yugi, his much more powerful alter ego. Not only is Yami Yugi a master dueler, but he is full of confidence and courage."
In what must have been a merchandiser’s dream, Takahashi uses the artistic device of a magical card game that is played by Yugi and his friends, and, pf course, by tens of millions of children around the world who purchase the cards in bookshops and toystores.
"Duel Monsters is a card-battling game in which players pit different mystical creatures against one another in wild, magical duels! Packed with awesome monsters and mighty spell-cards, Yugi and his friends are totally obsessed with the game.
"But there’s more to this card game than meets the eye! Legend has it five thousand years ago, ancient Egyptian Pharaoahs used to play a magical game very similar to Duel Monsters. This ancient game involved magical ceremonies, which were used to foresee the future and ultimately, decide one’s destiny. They called it the Shadow Game, and the main difference back then was that the monsters were all real! With so many magical spells and ferocious creatures on the earth, it wasn’t long before the game got out of hand and threatened to destroy the entire world! Fortunately, a brave Pharaoh stepped in and averted this cataclysm with the help of seven powerful magical totems.
"Now, in present times, the game has been revived in the form of playing cards..."
And you can pretty much guess the rest. Yu-Gi-Oh has become an international obssession for kids everywhere.
Central to the show, and the card game, are the dark haunting characters and artwork typical of the Japanese comic style known as "Anime" (pronounced AH-nee-may). So popular has anime become in the US that several universities now offer lecture courses on the style and its origins. Wrote the Seattle Times recently:
"Anime often tackles such themes as death and betrayal, and the stories sometimes are so intense that they are edited for children in the United States.
"The animations are shown as television series or feature-length movies in Japan, where adults are as likely as children to be the core audience.
"The academic movement in the United States reflects the fact that so many students had already become anime aficionados on their own. As elsewhere in the country, the University of Washington and most colleges around the state have student-run anime clubs.
"While parents sometimes decry anime for its violence and gory graphics, anime fans argue that those more intense animations are geared toward adults, not kids.
"The craze borders on obsession for some. At Washington State University, a handful of students gather weekly to learn conversational Japanese simply to understand anime better. And diehards watch anime with subtitles instead of dubbed versions because they feel the dialects and the voice inflections get lost in translation."
So if shows like Yu-Gi-Oh are part of the staple television diet in Japan, perhaps there are some clues there as to the long term effects on society. Correspondent Michael Zielenziger reports Japanese youth culture is in deep depression:
TOKYO - Kenji has seldom left his bedroom in five years. On a good day, when he forces himself, he can almost get to the front door of his mother’s small Tokyo apartment before fear overtakes him.
"It requires a lot of courage just to go downstairs and get the mail," said the 34-year-old shut-in, who is thin as a twig and nearly as fragile. "I have two personalities: One who doesn’t want to go out and one who does. They are fighting with each other constantly."
Kenji’s self-imposed confinement is surprisingly common in Japan today, after a decade of economic and social decline that has produced many worrisome effects. At least 1 million young Japanese adults, the vast majority men, imprison themselves in their rooms for months or even years at a time, according to Tamaki Saito, the first therapist to write a book on the subject. They sleep during the daytime and pace their rooms at night, hardly ever leaving except for a quick run to the 7-Eleven, if they can manage that.
Counsellors and psychiatrists say Kenji’s reclusiveness, known in Japan as "hikikomori," is an illness that exists only in Japan and was unknown even there until a decade ago. Hikikomori sufferers shut themselves off from siblings and friends, even parents, whom they sometimes attack in violent outbursts.
Kenji’s behaviour is a symptom of Japan’s decline. A growing number of professional counsellors and other experts worry that the nation itself is becoming a lot like Kenji: isolated, apprehensive and unable to interact with the outside word.
"I fear that Japan, as a nation itself, is becoming hikikomori," says psychiatrist Satoru Saito, who treats shut-ins and counsels families in his Tokyo clinic. "It is a nation that does not like to communicate. So what these young adults are doing is a mirror of what they see around them in adult society."
Japan’s trains still run on time, its streets are safe and most people live comfortably. Handguns are illegal, drug problems do not permeate schools or streets, and random violence is virtually unknown.
Still, deep pessimism has infected many aspects of Japanese society:
- Japanese are killing themselves in record numbers, more than 31,000 per year, three times the number who die in traffic accidents. Their suicide rate is the highest among industrialized nations and is steadily climbing. The rate among workers in their 30s has risen nearly 45 percent since 1996.
- Japan’s birthrate is among the lowest in the industrial world and still declining, because young women are avoiding marriage and refusing to bear children. By 2005, Japan’s population will begin to shrink, a trend that demographers say will be nearly impossible to reverse. The labour force, likewise, will dwindle drastically.
- Alcohol consumption is declining across the globe, but not here. Though alcoholism is rampant and accepted as a release from work and social pressure, it is almost never discussed by opinion leaders or at the workplace.
- Japanese workers are increasingly dissatisfied with their lives, stressed out and depressed, and modern antidepressants have become legal only recently. A survey of 43 nations by the Pew Research Centre, released this month, found that Japanese are far more pessimistic about themselves and their children’s future than the people of any other relatively prosperous nation.
- The demise of Japan’s extended family structure is causing unprecedented strains. While divorce rates are low, couples are growing apart, living in sexless marriages, often in separate bedrooms. Stressed-out mothers force their children to study and go to "cram school" in order to pass competitive entrance exams to high school and college, while absentee fathers spend their time and energy at work.
"Whether it’s hikikomori, alcoholism or sexless couples, these are all different manifestations of the same problem," says Masahiro Yamada, a prominent sociologist. "These are all symptomatic of the social and psychological deadlock of Japanese society.
"When you look around at Japanese society, you see that more and more people have just given up."
Men such as Kenji appear desperate to fit into society. Yet when they pursue even modest individuality, they generate friction that leaves them burned out or too weak to cope.
Though Kenji seldom leaves home, he agreed to speak about his condition after twice begging off, tearfully explaining on the telephone, "I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I just can’t come." When he finally did agree to talk, he said it was the first time in five years that he had left his apartment or spoken to anyone except his mother.
After just two trips outside their apartment, he became angry and "unstable," his mother said. He since has retreated to his room again, and his mother refuses to let him come to the phone, speak to outsiders or be photographed.
Kenji once was a mischievous child who loved playing third base. But he remembers being suddenly "frozen out" by classmates at his Tokyo grade school at age 12, when they inexplicably stopped talking to him.
"First it was just the boys, but within a week it was the girls, too," he says. "I thought it would pass after the winter school vacation, but it didn’t change at all. Since I wasn’t a student who studied hard, without having any friends I couldn’t find a reason to go to school. It was too painful."
Today, some 20 years later, he talks about those events as if they had happened yesterday.
Articulate and thoughtful, now he spends his days reading newspapers, watching TV and thinking.
Psychiatrists describe hikikomori as a syndrome in which young adults, usually men in their 20s and 30s, shut themselves off from the world, away from friends, school or work, for six months or more. These individuals do not suffer from other known psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia, autism or panic disorder. Hikikomori is different from agoraphobia, which occurs in the United States, whose victims fear leaving home to visit an unsettled social environment but can mix with friends or relatives in their homes.
Stress and fatigue also trigger the social isolation. Dai Hasebe dropped out of junior high school after his parents enrolled him in a juku designed to help him pass the competitive high school entrance exams. In elementary school, the 12-year-old hadn’t gotten home until after 10 at night.
"After a while, I just got tired," says Hasebe, now 19, who has spent most of the past six years secluded in his parent’s three-room Tokyo apartment. "There was no particular incident," such as bullying or a harsh conversation with a teacher, that made him stop going to school, he said. "I was just relieved not to have a schedule."
Hasebe now wears shoulder-length hair and a moustache and whiles away each afternoon building scale models in his bedroom. He constructs Japanese Zero fighter planes and French helicopters, draws precise diagrams of military equipment and designed a sort of 21st-century fantasy gladiator, a silvery pterodactyl with a rocket launcher that stands sentry in the entryway of his family’s home. Hasebe hardly eats; his pants barely stay on his hips even when they’re tightly belted.
Dr. Kosuke Yamazaki, a professor of child psychiatry at the Tokai University School of Medicine, thinks hikikomori patients’ frustration is the leading cause of domestic violence in Japan, as lonely, isolated and troubled adult children lash out in a cry for help. "They behave like brutal tyrants," he said.
Many of his patients often expressed fear that they would kill their parents by accident. "They say they have a personality that sometimes rages out of control."
Masahisa Okuyama, whose son suffers from hikikomori, founded the KHJ support network, which now has 31 chapters across Japan. Its name is formed from the initials in Japanese for obsessive neurosis, persecution mania and personality disorder.
"Parents are also victims of this disease," explains Okuyama, a former advertising executive, who was beaten by his 27-year-old shut-in son. He abandoned the family’s suburban home for a small apartment out of fear that his son would kill him.
"He hates me, but the relationship between parent and child is so strong," Okuyama says. "He can kill me or I could kill him. Let’s face it, we’ve been dissolved as a family."
More than half the parents in one suburban group of 120 affected families say they’ve been attacked by their children. One woman pulled up her sleeve and revealed an ugly black-and-blue mark, the result of being assaulted by her son. Another woman sleeps in her car for fear that her son will beat her.
Around one table, a group of 11 parents discussed how best to reach out to their children. Most cooked dinner for their children and left food outside their bedroom doors. Some said their children left their rooms only when their parents went to bed. With tinges of guilt, many admitted that they found it difficult to communicate with their children when they were younger.
Kenji desperately wanted to find a way to rejoin society. "I sometimes look back and say, `How did I become like this?’" he said.
"When you are raised by a wolf you grow up a wolf," Kenji said. "You can’t go back into normal society. That’s how I feel. Teachers tell you, `You are free to grow up and become what you want.’ But adults can’t show us any example where that’s true."
While it would certainly be unfair to blame all of Japan’s growing social chaos on its dark, occult-obssessed youth television, it would also be a mistake to ignore its impact. And lest New Zealanders get too comfortable, it is worth remembering that New Zealand’s youth suicide rate is nearly four times higher than Japan’s.
Is Yu-Gi-Oh going to make it any better? Not if the names of some of its game cards are an indicator. The programme screens at 4.30pm in New Zealand, making it "prime time" accessible to all children. And according to international reports, children are lapping up television’s new obsession with the occult like there’s no tomorrow:
It was a report in the Times of London that first illustrated the extent of the problem. Journal-ist Daniel McGrory discovered the huge range of pagan TV programmes for kids was encouraging many to begin exploring paganism, and even satanism, by searching websites on the internet.
"Teachers’ groups are worried that nobody is monitoring the effect this fascination with the occult is having on its teenage followers. There are no official figures in Britain for victims driven to suicide, but experts have no doubt that some young people have suffered from the malign influence of satanic cults.
"It took 15 suicides in two years before the authorities in Saxony demanded an investigation. Here, teachers’ unions and experts say that the authorities do not take the menace seriously enough. They warn of the dangers to teenagers of dabbling unsupervised with sinister websites. Some of these describe in lurid detail how they should drink blood or carry out blood-letting to seal their pact with Satan. They also encourage impressionable teenagers to join in "chat rooms" to express how miserable they are," wrote McGrory.
"Parents are advised not to rely on Internet filters to prevent their children from accessing sites featuring satanism and witchcraft.
"For many young people interest was aroused, innocently enough, through television programmes such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which a teenage girl does battle with all manner of satanic forces.
"In a recent survey of 2,600 children aged 11 to 16, more than half said that they were interested in the occult. The worry is that more than 15 per cent of those questioned by Mori said that they were worried about what they had discovered on the Web.
"The Association of Teachers and Lecturers wants schools to introduce classes advising young people of the risks of delving into the occult on the Internet. Peter Smith, the general secretary, said: "This goes beyond reading a Harry Potter story. This represents an extremely worrying trend among young people. Parents and teachers should educate children and young people about the dangers of dabbling in the occult before they become too deeply involved."
"Experts believe that there are now more than 1,000 cults operating in Britain and that their popularity has spread through the Internet. They are becoming adept at snaring young professionals through so-called self-help websites—for stopping smoking, losing weight, meeting a partner or playing the stock market.
"Ian Haworth, general secretary of the London-based Cult Information Centre, tours schools to dispel the idea that only vunerable youngsters fall prey to satanic cults. He says that recruiters are also active at college and university campuses, distributing free magazines that offer links to scores of Internet sites. "There is no doubt the Internet means that many more youngsters can dip into areas of the occult without realising what they are letting themselves into," he said.
In the case of Buffy, copycat psychosis appears to be the order of the day. In one celebrated case last year, a British teenager was arrested after becoming convinced that he, too, was a vampire, and beheading his elderly neighbour before drinking her blood. A young German couple were similarly found guilty of the ritual vampire murder of a man - they drank blood from his corpse before having sex in a coffin they’d purchased for the occasion.
Similar strong followings for Charmed and Sabrina the Teenage Witch are also making an impact. Britain’s Pagan Federation recently reported it was receiving more than a hundred calls a month from children and teenagers wanting to know more about joining an occult group.
Pagan Federation spokesman Andy Norfolk told journalists youngsters’ questions had become "much more mature" than those of the "how do I cast a spell?" variety, and tended to deal with "the religious aspects of witchcraft."
"We don’t get asked how to become a witch, but rather we get asked what a young witch should do.
"Many of those who write seem to have already found their spiritual path and wish to learn more."
Although the Pagan Federation denies actively recruiting children, it has appointed a "youth affairs" officer who also happens to be a school teacher, and its adult members have published a series of books for children, some available in New Zealand, with titles like The Young Witches’ Handbook, which includes spells for passing school exams or attracting a lover, or Spells for Teenage Witches, "a self-help book for young people".
In the US meanwhile, prominent newspapers like the Miami Herald have begun to investigate the rapidly plunging standards of broadcast television:
MIAMI - Fifty years ago, when a married Lucille Ball was having a baby on I Love Lucy, network censors wouldn’t allow use of the word "pregnant." This past year, on Friends, Rachel had a baby resulting from a one-night stand - and on the day it was due tried to speed up the delivery via a quickie sexual encounter with her male roommate.
Forty years ago, Ozzie and Harriet never had a scene of any kind take place in the Nelsons’ bedroom. This year, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a fistfight between Buffy and a vampire turned into roughhouse sex so violent that it literally knocked the house down around them.
Thirty years ago, network officials told singer Helen Reddy they would cancel her show unless she started wearing a bra. This year, contestants on Fear Factor were ordered to strip naked on camera to stay in the game.
Twenty years ago, an outraged NBC censor vetoed a Saturday Night Live sketch where Bill Murray and Gilda Radner’s nerdy characters put on a dopey high school nativity pageant: "You can’t give noogies to the Virgin Mary!" This year, Cameron Diaz hosted SNL and sang dirty children’s songs that purported to be about hirsute shellfish and rain-soaked kitty-cats.
It’s not puritan paranoia: This is not your father’s broadcast television. TV, once expected to be a polite guest in our living rooms, has turned into more of drunken party-crasher. Sex, violence and language that in earlier days would have triggered FCC threats and congressional investigations is now routine. Says show-biz historian and critic Michael Medved of TV standards: "I’m not sure I would use the word SHIFTING. I think the word COLLAPSING might be more appropriate."
You think he exaggerates?
Every week the CBS crime show CSI features mutilated corpses that would gag a maggot. Televised urination has become so routine that when FX’s The Shield had a cop whizzing on a suspect, producer Shawn Ryan bragged that "we shot it in a very tasteful way, as p——— scenes go."
That’s the sort of comment that outrages Laura Mahaney, vice president of the conservative Parents Television Council, which is lobbying advertisers to boycott The Shield. "What you’ve seen is a run to the bottom of the barrel, where the networks are seeing who can put the filthiest stuff on the fastest. You never would have seen references to oral sex or inferences of oral sex even five years ago. Now you do all the time, even on shows at 8 p.m ... It’s like a freight train run amok."
Whether you share Mahaney’s disgust, it’s hard to argue with her facts. A brief, chaste lesbian kiss on the 10 p.m. L.A. Law scandalized the country in 1991; this season, when lesbian witches on the 8 p.m. Buffy the Vampire Slayer levitated because the oral sex was especially good, it passed almost unnoticed.
Producers, network executives and other TV experts say there are several reasons television’s standards, which were relatively static for its first 40 years, have changed so dramatically over the past decade, but prime among them would have to be a disappearance of the will to fight the flood anymore.
Adds Medved: "There’s always been this sort of push-pull between Broadcasting Standards people and producers. Obviously people in the creative community want to test to see what they can do. There’s almost an element of gamesmanship to it. But what’s been happening in the past few years is that the creative people push, but on the other side, no one pushes back."
Critics argue it’s because the very people hired to be censors have themselves grown up on a sex and vio-lence TV diet and become inured to it, blind to what now surrounds them.
But while levitating nude witches engaging in oral sex on Buffy doesn’t make them bat an eyelid, those same TV censors are quick to leap on anything seen as non politically-correct. In the US, black comedian Arsenio Hall got a big laugh after cracking a black joke on the Tonight show, while one of David Letterman’s scriptwriters found herself censored for trying to tell a similar one-liner. An example in New Zealand this year was the ongoing furore over whether two Christian videos should be banned.
In a column for National Radio’s Mediawatch programme, commentator Karl du Fresne picked up the story:
"Those videos expressed views that were understandably unpopular with gay activists. One was that the gay activist lobby was demanding not just equal rights, but special rights; the other was that homosexuality was a factor in the spread of HIV and Aids.
"Neither of these, you might think, qualifies as an outrageous or even exceptional proposition. Yet the videos ended up before the Chief Censor, who considered them so potentially injurious to the public good that he imposed an R16 restriction. Not satisfied with that, a gay activist group appealed to the Film and Literature Board of Review, which declared the videos objectionable in anyone’s hands."
A court fight ensued, and eventually the Court of Appeal ruled that the videos should be cleared for release, but the Film Review Board then asked the Government to consider outlawing what it calls "hate speech".
In March, while most of New Zealand’s attention was on the Iraq crisis, a parliamentary select committe chaired by MP Diane Yates, released its own report on the issue, "and oddly enough," writes Du Fresne, "the main thrust is that the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act should be modified to encompass hate speech.
"That would mean politically incorrect opinions such as those expressed in the Living Word videos could be banned without the pesky Court of Appeal getting in the way. And the Chief Censor wouldn¹t have to bother himself with nitpicking, high-flown notions about freedom of expression.
"Interestingly enough, nowhere in the report is any attempt made to define "hate speech". It’s one of those wondrously loaded phrases, like "social justice", that can mean whatever the user wants it to mean. In the context of the committee’s report, it seems to mean anything that might offend a minority group.
"Presumably it would be left to the Chief Censor to define hate speech, and in so doing to determine what New Zealanders are allowed to say, see and hear. This places unprecedented and dangerous power in the hands of a bureaucrat and casts him in the role of a commissar in Soviet Russia. It also tugs the censorship laws in an entirely new direction, and one that I suspect Parliament never intended when it passed the Act in 1993."
Amid the irony that the chief target of censors may soon be the so-called "morals cam-paigners", rather than programme-makers, dark entertainment like Yu-Gi-Oh continues unchallenged to prep the pre-teen market with violent occultism while Buffy and Charmed do the trick for their older siblings.
One very harsh critic of the high-violence, high occult kids shows is Lt. Colonel David Grossman, a military pschologist who used to study methods of brainwashing US soldiers to make them better killing machines. Now he tours the US like a voice in the wilderness, warning that today’s television content and violent role-playing computer games are on a par with the best military technology in training kids to murder.
Grossman has studied social and crime trends in a range of countries, including New Zealand, and his diagnosis is grim.
"To understand the why behind outbreaks of this "virus of violence," we need to understand first the magnitude of the problem. The per capita murder rate doubled in the US between 1957—when the FBI started keeping track of the data - and 1992. A fuller picture of the problem, however, is indicated by the rate people are attempting to kill one another - the aggravated assault rate. That rate in America has gone from around 60 per 100,000 in 1957 to over 440 per 100,000 by the middle of this decade. As bad as this is, it would be much worse were it not for two major factors.
"First is the increase in the imprisonment rate of violent offenders. The prison population in America nearly quadrupled between 1975 and 1992. According to criminologist John J. DiIulio, "dozens of credible empirical analyses…leave no doubt that the increased use of prisons averted millions of serious crimes." If it were not for our tremendous imprisonment rate (the highest of any industrialized nation), the aggravated assault rate and the murder rate would undoubtedly be even higher.
"The second factor keeping the murder rate from being any worse is medical technology. According to the U.S. Army Medical Service Corps, a wound that would have killed nine out of ten soldiers in World War II, nine out of ten could have survived in Vietnam. Thus, by a very conservative estimate, if we had 1940-level medical technology today, the murder rate would be ten times higher than it is.
"The magnitude of the problem has been held down by the development of sophisticated lifesaving skills and techniques, such as helicopter medevacs, 911 operators, paramedics, cpr, trauma centers, and medicines.
"However, the crime rate is still at a phenomenally high level, and this is true worldwide. In Canada, according to their Center for Justice, per capita assaults increased almost fivefold between 1964 and 1993, attempted murder increased nearly sevenfold, and murders doubled. Similar trends can be seen in other countries in the per capita violent crime rates reported to Interpol between 1977 and 1993.
"In Australia and New Zealand, the assault rate increased approximately fourfold, and the murder rate nearly doubled in both nations. The assault rate tripled in Sweden, and approximately doubled in Belgium, Denmark, England-Wales, France, Hungary, Netherlands, and Scotland, while all these nations had an associated (but smaller) increase in murder.
"This virus of violence is occurring worldwide. The explanation for it has to be some new factor that is occurring in all of these countries. There are many factors involved, and none should be discounted: for example, the prevalence of guns in our society. But violence is rising in many nations with draconian gun laws. And though we should never downplay child abuse, poverty, or racism, there is only one new variable present in each of these countries, bearing the exact same fruit: media violence presented as entertainment for children."
Grossman’s identification of media violence as a catalyst for child violence is bourne out by confirmation that the two teenagers who committed the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado were addicted to the computer game Doom. It is worth noting that at the time Grossman was making these comments, back in 1998, the Columbine massacre had not yet happened. Grossman says the reason modern media violence is insidious is because it indoctrinates, glorifies and desensitises mass murder.
But haven’t we always had killing? Haven’t soldiers always gone into far more brutal battles than video can match? "Dur-ing World War II, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. S. L. A. Marshall had a team of researchers study what soldiers did in battle. For the first time in history, they asked individual soldiers what they did in battle. They discovered that only 15 to 20 percent of the individual riflemen could bring themselves to fire at an exposed enemy soldier," explains Grossman.
"That is the reality of the battlefield. Only a small percentage of soldiers are able and willing to participate. Men are willing to die, they are willing to sacrifice themselves for their nation; but they are not willing to kill. It is a phenomenal insight into human nature; but when the military became aware of that, they systematically went about the process of trying to fix this "problem."
"From the military perspective, a 15 percent firing rate among riflemen is like a 15 percent literacy rate among librarians. And fix it the military did. By the Korean War, around 55 percent of the soldiers were willing to fire to kill. And by Vietnam, the rate rose to over 90 percent.
"The method in this madness: Desensitization. How the military increases the killing rate of soldiers in combat is instructive, because our culture today is doing the same thing to our children. The training methods militaries use are brutalization, classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and role modeling. I will explain these in the military context and show how these same factors are contributing to the phenomenal increase of violence in our culture.
"Brutalization and desensitization are what happens at boot camp. From the moment you step off the bus you are physically and verbally abused: countless pushups, endless hours at attention or running with heavy loads, while carefully trained professionals take turns screaming at you. Your head is shaved, you are herded together naked and dressed alike, losing all individuality. This brutalization is designed to break down your existing mores and norms and to accept a new set of values that embrace destruction, violence, and death as a way of life. In the end, you are desensitized to violence and accept it as a normal and essential survival skill in your brutal new world.
"Something very similar to this desensitization toward violence is happening to our children through violence in the media—but instead of 18-year-olds, it begins at the age of 18 months when a child is first able to discern what is happening on television. At that age, a child can watch something happening on television and mimic that action. But it isn’t until children are six or seven years old that the part of the brain kicks in that lets them understand where information comes from. Even though young children have some understanding of what it means to pretend, they are developmentally unable to distinguish clearly between fantasy and reality.
"When young children see somebody shot, stabbed, raped, brutalized, degraded, or murdered on TV, to them it is as though it were actually happening. To have a child of three, four, or five watch a "splatter" movie, learning to relate to a character for the first 90 minutes and then in the last 30 minutes watch helplessly as that new friend is hunted and brutally murdered is the moral and psychological equivalent of introducing your child to a friend, letting her play with that friend, and then butchering that friend in front of your child’s eyes. And this happens to our children hundreds upon hundreds of times.
"Sure, they are told: "Hey, it’s all for fun. Look, this isn’t real, it’s just TV." And they nod their little heads and say okay. But they can’t tell the difference. Can you remember a point in your life or in your children’s lives when dreams, reality, and television were all jumbled together? That’s what it is like to be at that level of psychological development. That’s what the media are doing to them.
"The Journal of the American Medical Association published the definitive epidemiological study on the impact of TV violence. The research demonstrated what happened in numerous nations after television made its appearance as compared to nations and regions without TV. The two nations or regions being compared are demographically and ethnically identical; only one variable is different: the presence of television. In every nation, region, or city with television, there is an immediate explosion of violence on the playground, and within 15 years there is a doubling of the murder rate. Why 15 years? That is how long it takes for the brutalization of a three- to five-year-old to reach the "prime crime age." That is how long it takes for you to reap what you have sown when you brutalize and desensitize a three-year-old.
"Today the data linking violence in the media to violence in society are superior to those linking cancer and tobacco. Hundreds of sound scientific studies demonstrate the social impact of brutalization by the media. The Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that "the introduction of television in the 1950’s caused a subsequent doubling of the homicide rate, i.e., long-term childhood exposure to television is a causal factor behind approximately one half of the homicides committed in the United States, or approximately 10,000 homicides annually." The article went on to say that "…if, hypothetically, television technology had never been developed, there would today be 10,000 fewer homicides each year in the United States, 70,000 fewer rapes, and 700,000 fewer injurious assaults" (June 10, 1992).
"Classical conditioning is like the famous case of Pavlov’s dogs you learned about in Psychology 101: The dogs learned to associate the ringing of the bell with food, and, once conditioned, the dogs could not hear the bell without salivating.
"The Japanese were masters at using classical conditioning with their soldiers. Early in World War II, Chinese prisoners were placed in a ditch on their knees with their hands bound behind them. And one by one, a select few Japanese soldiers would go into the ditch and bayonet "their" prisoner to death. This is a horrific way to kill another human being. Up on the bank, countless other young soldiers would cheer them on in their violence. Comparatively few soldiers actually killed in these situations, but by making the others watch and cheer, the Japanese were able to use these kinds of atrocities to classically condition a very large audience to associate pleasure with human death and suffering. Immediately afterwards, the soldiers who had been spectators were treated to sake, the best meal they had had in months, and to so-called comfort girls. The result? They learned to associate committing violent acts with pleasure.
"The Japanese found these kinds of techniques to be extraordinarily effective at quickly enabling very large numbers of soldiers to commit atrocities in the years to come. Operant conditioning teaches you to kill, but classical conditioning is a subtle but powerful mechanism that teaches you to like it."
Operant conditioning, for the record, is rote learning to kill. Stimulus, reaction. Stimulus, reaction. In airforce training, it is flight simulator computer games - missile lock, fire. Training to operate purely on instinct and adrenalin. Something, says Grossman, that interactive computer games do so well with today’s kids.
So what sort of traction is the issue getting in New Zealand? We invited TVNZ chief executive Ian Fraser to comment, but there’s been no response. However, a working party is due to report back to the Government this September on whether children’s television is too violent.
Investigate approached the Broadcasting Standards Authority for comment on whether our programme standards covered protecting children from the occult.
"We’ve never really thought about it. No one’s ever complained," reported the BSA. Maybe no one’s ever realised they could.
additional reporting: Glenn Garvin, Michael Zielenziger, KRT
March 06, 2007
AROPAX NATION: A HARD HABIT TO BREAK, APR 2004
Are modern anti-depressants actually making people crazy? CLARE SWINNEY investigates the growing controversy over the side effects and withdrawal sympoms of the SSRIs:
Janet Frame touches on the association between doctors and patients in Faces In The Water, (1980) on page 28. ‘The doctor would pause sometimes to inquire, smiling in a friendly manner, but at the same time glancing hastily at his watch and perhaps wondering how in the hour before lunch he could possibly finish his rounds of all the women’s ward and get back to his office to deal with correspondence and interviews with demanding puzzled alarmed ashamed relatives.’ Although this was set in an asylum in New Zealand in between the First and Second World Wars, it bears a familiar flavour.
Propelled by a need for efficiency, psychiatry’s enthusiasm for symptomatic, push-button remedies, has led to life’s transient ‘symptoms’, such as forms of mild depression, to be clinically diagnosed and, once diagnosed, seemingly quickly alleviated, if not eliminated, by a pharmacological intervention. Many clinicians today consider it more practical, economical and speedier to prescribe medication than psychotherapy. But is dispensing tablets, such as the family of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), the best course of action for treating common ailments, such as mild to moderate depression? Or is it doing damage to those it is supposed to be helping?
Doctors have administered and prescribed a series of addictive drugs as sedatives for psychological distress since the early 1800’s, ascribing to the belief that they wouldn’t lead to dependence, and if they did, their patients were probably accountable in some way. Initially, there was opium and alcohol, then heroin, morphine and cocaine. Then in came the bromides, barbiturates and associated compounds. And an assortment of benzodiazepines ensued – including Librium and the iconic one, Valium, which was deceptively denoted ‘mother’s little helper.’
As a consequence of the relationships between governments, almighty drug companies, the medical profession and patients, it took over two decades of comprehensive use before benzodiazepines were accepted as addictive. When this occurred in the late 1980s, prescriptions for them went into sharp decline, but by then, thousands of addicts had been spawned worldwide, many for whom the sole motivation for continuing to take the drugs was that it was too distressing trying to cease using them. They were dependent upon them - in a similar manner some get hooked on drinking. It wasn’t an obvious addiction. Its effects were, for the most part, respectably concealed behind the white net curtains of suburbia. But the households were haunted.
A few weeks ago, an evening talkback show on Radio Pacific elicited calls from people who’d taken SSRIs, the antidepressants which soared in popularity when benzodiazepines lost favour. SSRI’s affect the brain’s ability to reabsorb serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain, which is supposed to affect mood, sleep and appetite. That night numerous people phoned the radio station. Said the program’s host: “We were inundated.” People related how difficult it was to come off SSRIs owing to a melange of atrocious withdrawal symptoms. Some divulging that they experienced anger, fierce rage and suicidal thoughts. A number regarded it as too difficult to give up, and regarded their medication as addictive.
Difficulties coming off the SSRIs are well documented. An Internet search of MEDLINEPlus using the search terms ‘SSRI’ and ‘withdrawal’ in combination drew out 278 entries and in Google, 51,900. Some experts stated that many patients, who go off the drugs, mistake their withdrawal symptoms for a return of the original symptoms they were using the drug to treat. They then commonly restart the medication. Other experts said that in many cases there may be a re-emergence of the symptoms people took the drug to alleviate, such as panic attacks for example, and that this was the deciding factor for some patients who restarted their SSRI medication.
Aropax, (paroxetine), which has a relatively intense impact and short duration of action, is associated with the most severe withdrawal reactions. It was approved for introduction into New Zealand in April 1992 and is now the most widely prescribed antidepressant in New Zealand - 209,054 prescriptions were written for it in 2003 alone. And this states Pharmac, the government-sponsored Pharmaceutical Management Agency of New Zealand, is in spite of it having come under scrutiny in Europe and North America, owing to reports linking it to an increased incidence of suicide and a heightened risk of dependence.
In 2003, the number of prescriptions for expensive antidepressants rose and cost taxpayers an additional $4.6 million from the year before. Clinicians’ preference for the SSRIs: Aropax, Fluox and Cipramil, over the old style of antidepressants, such as the tricyclics and monoamine oxidase inhibitors, accounted for most of this unwelcome gain.
One of the reasons for SSRIs popularity is that doctors do not regard SSRIs as addictive. Withdrawal from SSRI’s, such as Fluox and Aropax, can cause a range of unpleasant symptoms, such as dizziness, insomnia, virtual reality nightmares and headaches, but this in itself is not indicative of an addiction. According to Associate Prof Doug Sellman, a psychiatrist who specialises in addiction research at Christchurch, there is a crucial difference between a withdrawal syndrome associated with drugs taken for reward and attendant drug-seeking behaviour and a discontinuation syndrome from medications generally. He states: “There is no doubt that there is a discontinuation syndrome from SSRIs, such as Aropax, but not a withdrawal syndrome that will reignite drug-seeking behaviour.”
“Oh yeah?” responds Jane, one Auckland woman who tried to give up Aropax six weeks after starting. “By day five of climbing the walls, fighting the urge to kill yourself, fighting the urge to kill somebody else, feeling nauseous with the most horrific dreams I’ve ever experienced in my life – of course you go crawling back and start taking the drugs again! I suggest these doctors try taking these drugs themselves for a while, then try kicking the habit. Then you’d see their views change.”
Interestingly, a US clinician interviewed by Time magazine dismissed the link between SSRIs and suicides, saying a study of suicides failed to find evidence that an SSRI had been taken in the hours beforehand. But according to Jane and others, he missed the point - the suicidal thoughts come when you try to give up the drug, and you haven’t taken a pill.
Jane had gone to her doctor for exhaustion, and came away carrying a 20mg a day prescription for Aropax. When some of the side effects started to kick in after four weeks, she went back to the medic who decided to double Jane’s dose to 40mg a day. Things went from bad to worse - and the discovery that Aropax is one drug you can’t quit cold turkey.
“Once you’re on you can’t get off,” she says. “And that’s the most terrifying thing of all.”
The Diagnostic And Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Ed., (DSM IV), is the clinicians’ bible. Amongst other things it categorises 307 different types of depression, other mental illnesses, the personality disorders, and substance abuse problems. According to this guidebook, ‘addiction’ requires at least 3 of 7 criteria to be met, (p. 181).
Offers Dr Alistair Dunn, a GP, who specialises in the field of addiction: “A withdrawal syndrome is but 1 of those 7 criteria. I don’t think taking an SSRI, such as Aropax, fulfils any of the others. And I don’t regard it as addictive because it may in some cases, require careful tapering off. If medication for blood pressure is stopped abruptly, a rebound rise in blood pressure can result, or in other cases, a return of angina may occur. Therefore, it must be tapered off slowly. But that doesn’t make it addictive. Addiction does not equal withdrawal syndrome. It’s much more complex, involving effects across a wide range of domains in someone’s life.”
A DSM IV diagnosis of addiction requires evidence of outright abuse. One of the 7 criteria assigned is self-destructiveness manifested in drug-seeking behaviour, such as visiting multiple doctors or driving long distances. Obviously, this would be most unlikely to occur with an SSRI, given that physicians readily prescribe and actively encourage their use. Asserts Dr Dunn: “It can sometimes take a long time for a GP to convince a patient to try a medication, even when the need is obvious to the doctor and the benefits are significant.” Dunn seemed quite annoyed this article was being written. “What about the benefits of the medication and the harm of someone stopping it because they have read an article stating it’s an addictive drug,” he queries.
A review of the medical literature on the SSRI withdrawal syndrome by Tamam and Ozpoyraz, concludes that the best approach for a doctor in dealing with patients experiencing withdrawal symptoms is to educate them, reassuring them that it is a reversible condition, while reinstating the original SSRI, and further slowing the rate of tapering off the drug. (Source: Adv. Ther, 2002).
Anna De Jonge of Hamilton is the Liaison Officer for the Patients’ Rights Advocacy Waikato Inc, (PRAWI), a group of 570, that advocates having will power over pill power. PRAWI’s principal aim is to empower people with information and knowledge. And it, amongst other activities, assists victims of medical misadventure to make formal complaints. Says De Jonge, who is opposed to the use of the SSRI’s because she says they’ve been associated with “suicide, murder, self-harm and mental turmoil,” if in time SSRI’s turn out to be no improvement on latter-day antidepressants, this will be owing to and in spite of the minimisation of the risks of taking them. “If SSRI’s were in some regard, drugs of dependence, but not being categorised as such, it will increase the element of risk of self-harm using them, and their effectiveness will naturally be over-estimated,” maintains De Jonge.
Is their effectiveness being over-estimated? Effectiveness of numerous drugs is. Although it’s seems baffling given the drug industry’s culture of maximum possible sales for maximum possible profit, Dr Allen Roses, an employee of GlaxoSmithKline, (GSK), which is Britain’s largest drugs empire, publicly disclosed that most prescription medicines don’t work on most of those who take them. Amongst those working in the pharmaceutical industry, this was no secret. Seemingly paradoxically, Roses, worldwide Vice-President of genetics at GSK, stated late in 2003 that most drugs only work in 30-50% of people - a substantial proportion prescribed some of the most expensive drugs do not derive any benefit from them at all.
Could this be a reason why the SSRI, Prozac, which is the most widely prescribed antidepressant drug in history, made a fortune for the company, Eli Lilly, yet couldn’t save the CEO’s own spouse? In May 1994, Mrs Marilyn Tobias, the wife of Randall L Tobias, chief of Eli Lilly, committed suicide. Tobias told a magazine in 1995 that his wife was depressed and had tried Prozac.
Prozac was approved for use in New Zealand in February 1988. Eli Lilly’s www.prozac.com website states: “…since its introduction in 1986, Prozac has helped over 40 million patients worldwide, including those suffering from depression…”. Yet, as Charles Medawar, who has worked in consumer protection in the UK and held appointments with the World Health Organisation, pointed out “there has been no discernible effect on suicide rates, since the start of the new war on depression.” Suicide rates in the USA, where SSRIs have been most used, and in England, provided no evidence of any national dose-response. (Source: ‘The Antidepressant Web - Marketing Depression and Making Medicines Work,’ in International Journal of Risk and Safety in Medicine, 1997, p.23).
And now the 24,500 or so anti-depressant prescriptions provided for treating children and adolescents each year in New Zealand are under scrutiny as researchers look for a possible link between SSRIs and suicide. SSRIs are not registered for use here in children, but some doctors prescribe them to youngsters. In Britain, authorities have advised doctors not to prescribe the SSRIs Lustral, Cipramil, Cipralex, and Faverin to young depressed people as clinical trials found a higher rate of insomnia, agitation, weight loss, headache, tremor, loss of appetite, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts in children taking the drugs.
For years, drug manufacturers and regulators in the UK and US maintained that antidepressants would reduce the risk of suicide. Perhaps most notably, Dr David Healy, Director, North Wales Department of Psychological Medicine, a psychiatrist with an international reputation, having authored 12 books and over 120 peer-reviewed articles, strongly disputes this claim. Healy has examined many confidential internal drug company documents, to which he gained access in his capacity as an expert witness in a lawsuit against GSK. These internal documents, Healy states, show the results of the company’s own clinical trials testing the SSRI, paroxetine (Aropax). The evidence, he alleges, shows that rather than reducing the risk of suicide, the drug increases it. He told the BBC that the evidence indicates that roughly 1 in 60 people who go on this drug makes a suicide attempt, whereas only 1 in 550 on a placebo or sugar pill do. Dr Healy says both the drug company and the regulators in the UK and US knew this data for 13 years.
At the heart of the problem, Healy believes is that SSRIs cause akathisia, a syndrome involving motor restlessness, and it is this that causes some patients to commit suicide. GSK’s own studies, and Healy’s, show that SSRIs can cause 1 in 4 healthy volunteers to become agitated. Healy, who is also involved in legal action against Pfizer, following the suicide of the 13-year old American called Matthew Miller, who hanged himself after taking the SSRI sertraline for a week, carried out a trial in healthy human volunteers comparing sertraline with Pharmacia’s Edronax, which does not work on the serotonin system.
The results showed that one third did not respond well to sertraline at all. Of this third, 2 volunteers became acutely and seriously suicidal just being on a normal clinical dose for 2 weeks. They were absolutely normal people. Healy claimed that the archives of the 2 companies contained evidence supporting his own findings.
In excess of 30 studies on sertraline carried out before the drug was licensed, showed that 1 in 4 people taking the drug became agitated. The healthy volunteer studies carried out by the company showed that about 50% of patients suffered withdrawal problems when they came off the drug. Healy claimed this suggested that some patients had become physically dependent on the drug. But instead of warning patients and doctors, he said the company argued that the patients with problems coming off drugs were suffering a recurrence of depression and needed to resume medication.
It can be difficult to conceive of what could be going through someone’s mind when they consider suicide. According to 31-year old, Ashburton mother of two, Diane Blakemore, of how she felt while taking an SSRI: “My life was totally miserable. I wasn’t living - I was surviving. I had horrific nightmares, usually quite satanic. Irrational fears on the drug, were the norm too.
She continues: “I would lie on the couch, too lethargic to move and felt suicidal, as I was highly anxious and depressed. My whole body had inner shakes, I was sweating all over and I had headaches and unbearable muscle tension. My nervous system was overstimulated to the max.
“I felt suicidal because I felt like this and really didn’t like it. I didn’t know how to handle it. The doctor told me to keep taking the tablets, saying that these side effects would go away after 4 weeks. But they didn’t.
“I’d never had any of these symptoms prior to taking the drug. I recently had a bladder and uterine prolapse with terrible backache as a result of giving birth, which made me feel very tired. And as my child had colic, I had to walk the floor, and this walking made my backache worsen. The longer I was on my feet, whether I be sitting or standing later, the worse the pressure and resultant pain would be. And it affected my legs too, as they felt heavy. My backache would ease if I lay down and I took my body weight off my sacrum - so I knew it wasn’t a psychological problem. And I was aware that prolapses might cause this pressure pain. But unfortunately, I just did what the doctor told me and took the medication for the ‘chemical imbalance’ I was told I had.” In this case, the chemical imbalance her doctor referred to was a diagnosis of depression. Blakemore wrote to members of parliament in March 2004 regarding her experiences. In her opinion the medical profession is too ready to categorise behaviour as indicative of depression and far too disposed to prescribe antidepressants.
As with the withdrawal syndrome, problems such as Blakemore’s SSRI experiences have been documented, yet SSRI popularity continues to soar worldwide. For example, in the UK in 1992, 500,000 prescriptions were written for SSRIs. A decade later, the figure was 15 million. Likewise, in 1993 in New Zealand approximately 50,000 scripts were written for SSRI’s and by 2003, this mushroomed to almost 450,000.
Investigate asked GlaxoSmithKline how many packs of Aropax - a drug subsidised by the government - they sold in 2003, in New Zealand. Neil Jarvis, the sales manager responded: “Unfortunately the information you have requested cannot be provided. As you appreciate, sales data is confidential and is not readily available from a majority of pharma [sic] companies.” While GlaxoSmithKline regarded this as classified information, it is in the public arena that in 2003, doctors wrote 203,636 prescriptions for Aropax and that the Ministry of Health paid $19,269,716 for it. Pacific Pharmaceuticals, which supplies the Prozac equivalent, Fluox, a drug which is also subsidised by the government, told Investigate that the company sold 193,000 packs of capsules in New Zealand in 2003. Each pack contains 90 capsules.
In light of the show-stopping number of these drugs being sold each year, it is little wonder the Radio Pacific talkback session on SSRIs became deluged with callers a few weeks ago. When the BBC broadcast a show on SSRIs in the UK in late-2002, it also received a huge response from viewers - 1,374 e-mails and over 5,000 telephone calls. A published medical paper presents an analysis of these e-mails and finds that 17% rated paroxetine as “very positive to worth taking”, 48% rated paroxetine negatively, from not worth taking to severely disabling, and 35% were uncertain, giving no or insufficient evidence of having taken the drug.
Investigate went to a pharmacy to take photos of SSRI packs. The pharmacist, who does not wish to be named, regarded the number of people he knew who were taking it as “sad.” Although not being handed out like sweets by the medical profession, because of restrictions, he knew of people taking it because their friends were.
According to Dr Jay M. Pomerantz of Harvard University, since antidepressants have severe adverse side effects, most patients stop taking them before they might have any positive effect. Investigate found evidence that SSRIs aren’t being swallowed according to doctors’ orders. A near full pack of Aropax was found in a skip outside someone’s apartment. A friend handed me 35 Fluox tablets to take photos of, saying he didn’t ask his doctor for anything for depression, but was prescribed them. He took the medication for 15 days, before deciding it more prudent to address the cause of his unhappiness. In addition, there were packs of Prozac 20 located at a relation’s residence, abandoned in a kitchen drawer.
It is not difficult to fathom that the medical profession is eager to promote these drugs’ use.
The British government is now cracking down on reckless over-prescribing of SSRI drugs, which are depleting public health care budgets. New draft guidelines from the UK’s National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE), the British government agency that decides which drugs should be available through the National Health Service, state that antidepressants are not recommended for the initial treatment of mild depression in adults “because the risk–benefit ratio is poor.” NICE will publish guidelines for the treatment of depression in children in 2005.
Investigate asked Pharmac’s Medical Director, Dr Peter Moodie, if there were any plans to curtail the burgeoning sum being spent on SSRIs here. Moodie advised that a cheaper source of paroxetine was in the process of being sourced, as the patent for the drug had expired. However, he said it would take some time before a cheaper, generic equivalent to Aropax could be obtained, as its producer is fighting tooth and nail to keep its market share. He said it would help reduce costs to taxpayers if doctors were more prepared to look at the basic causes of depression, before reaching for a prescription pad.
Do SSRI’s work? They inhibit serotonin reuptake. They inhibit the action of receptors on cells near neurons, thus making the serotonin stay in the synapse longer and consequently activate the next neuron for a longer duration than would otherwise occur. However, it is merely hypothesised that depression and anxiety are related to abnormal levels of serotonin and altering its effectiveness with an SSRI may alleviate the symptoms.
Depression, which, as mentioned, falls into 307 categories in the DSM IV, is also believed to be associated with abnormal levels of other neurotransmitters, such as norepinephrine and dopamine, which can, some experts say, be regulated by other drugs. A problem with prescribing the ‘right’ drug to treat depression, is that there is no scientific way to prove that a person has a low or high level of a specific neurotransmitter - so finding the appropriate drug for someone is deemed to be on a trial basis.
Ironically, while doctors continue to give SSRIs the red carpet treatment, numerous studies have demonstrated that drugs are not required to treat depression. Placebos or dummy tablets, such as disguised sugar pills, can do just as good a job. Indeed, numerous reputable studies have found that patients may respond to placebos, in much the same way they respond to antidepressants. One such study, a major government-funded study in the US, found that neither Zoloft, nor St. John’s wort are any more effective than a placebo in patients with major depression. (See: JAMA, Vol. 287, No. 14, April 10, 2002).
Similarly, research by a team led by University of Connecticut psychologist, Irving Kirsch, did an analysis of clinical trial data submitted to the US FDA for the 6 most widely prescribed antidepressants in the US, that were approved between 1987 and 1999. Namely fluoxetine, paroxetine, sertraline, venlafaxine, nefazodone and citalopram.
The group found that 80% of the response to medication was duplicated in placebo control groups. Thus, those who received only the pretend pills felt better to about the same degree than those who took the SSRI drug did. The average difference in improvement was only 2 points on the Hamilton Depression Scale, which produces scores up to 50 or 62 points, depending on the version used. The difference was so small that it was obvious the people got well because they expected to.
Kirsch et al concluded that if the drug affect is as small as it appears when drug-placebo differences are estimated, then there is little justification for the clinical use of SSRIs. (Source: ‘The Emperor’s New Drugs: An Analysis of Antidepressant Medication Data Submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration,’ published by American Psychological Association, 2002).
These studies raise very serious questions about whether SSRIs should be the treatment of choice for depression -questions that seem to be falling on deaf ears.
A placebo poses no risk and costs next to nothing, and research findings have demonstrated repeatedly that they work as well as antidepressant medication. So why do psychiatrists prescribe expensive SSRI drugs despite the serious risks and side effects? The risks associated with highly prescribed antidepressants can be severe: in some patients they produce suicidal thoughts.
Investigate asked Pharmac if the many studies that have shown a placebo is as effective in treating depression as an SSRI, have influenced any decisions Pharmac has made? Dr Moodie said: “No. We are aware of those papers. How quickly doctors prescribe SSRIs is up to good medical practice. If Pharmac perceives that there is something obviously going awry in the prescribing of various drugs, then there is a responsibility to promote responsible use.”
Aropax is repeatedly advertised in full-page ads in the New Ethicals Catalogue, a handbook used by GPs to select medications, as ‘more than just an antidepressant.’ Indeed, SSRI antidepressants are advertised and prescribed as safe for a myriad of complaints that have nothing to do with severe, clinical depression for which they were approved.
Dr. Pomerantz notes that “SSRIs in particular, have replaced benzodiazepines as the drugs of choice when the physician is at a loss for what to do to get a patient out of the office.” And: “If what we are seeing is a pattern of widespread antidepressant prescribing for a multitude of subsyndromal, amorphous, patient complaints, it suggests that antidepressants have become the modern-day sugar pill, or placebo. It is quite likely that antidepressants have largely replaced benzodiazepines in this regard.” (Source: Antidepressants Used as Placebos: Is That Good Practice? in Drug Benefit Trends 15 (8), 2003).
If antidepressants are being prescribed as a placebo, New Zealand taxpayers are paying the pharmaceutical companies a ridiculously high price. It is a joke and a telling one. We would be misguided blaming the drug industry for this state of affairs. Effective corporate monsters like GSK and Eli Lilly exist to make a profit for shareholders, not to help provide premium health care for people. Providing good health care is the job of the medical profession.
When Coming Off Antidepressants:
Work closely with your doctor.
Taper the medication. Experts agree that the best way to avoid withdrawal side effects is to wean off the medication. By reducing the dosage in small increments, the brain can adjust to the change in chemical balance and slowly adapt to living without the drug. For some people, experts say, this process may take up to a year.
Get psychotherapy or counselling. While drugs can often mask problems, therapy can help address underlying causes. Psychotherapy is far superior to medication in the long term.
Exercise. Even if you don’t feel like it. Force yourself to. There’s strong evidence exercise plays a major role in lifting one’s mood and reducing stress.
Eat a healthy diet.
Laugh. Laughter is one of the best medicines.
January 29, 2007
The Case for ADHD: Jan 07 issue
THE CASE FOR ADHD
Claire Morrow examines the Attention Deficit controversy
Q: How many kids with ADHD does it take to change a light-bulb?
A: Let’s ride our bikes!
Of course children like to ride bikes (a great mystery), and they are rarely called upon to change light-bulbs. But what happens to the kids in the joke when they are old enough to change light-bulbs? “OK...here I am...I’m at the shop...I’m going to buy light-bulbs and milk...great...I can do this.” By some miracle the adult with ADHD has their bank card with them and it’s not maxed out.
Gleefully arriving home - stopping briefly at the neighbour’s to pick up the spare keys so they can let themselves in (stepping carefully around the pile of junk in the hallway) - with bread, eggs and all the things to fix that crack in the wall and...no light-bulbs.
Everyone has those “senior moments” from time to time, and most of us can say “oh, that happens to me too”. But for some people it happens...a lot. Too much. Even if you haven’t been paying attention, you could hardly have failed to notice that there is a condition called Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder. It is the most common psychiatric diagnosis in children (in adults, depression is the most common) and it receives the kind of media attention that your average cancer charity would kill for. Not normally positive media attention though. Not your Here-are-the-warning-signs-see-your-doctor-now-for-help- thanks-to the-miracle-of-science kind of publicity, as a general rule. More your bad-kids-or-bad-parents-you-be-the-judge kind of attention. Children do not have ADHD because their parents smack them, or don’t smack them, because dad’s not around, because they’re poor or because they eat too much sugar/wheat/dairy products.
True, the odd child who is badly behaved, impulsive and super-active may be misdiagnosed with ADHD when there are in fact “problems at home”. But a good, thorough assessment would rule that out. An ADHD diagnosis is usually made very, very carefully with the involvement of several specialists, teachers and parents. One cannot simply front up to the family doctor, complain about the child and get a pill to make it go away.
Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder is primarily a disorder of attention. It comes in 3 flavors - hyperactive, inattentive and mixed (one scoop of each). The primary symptoms revolve around the ability to focus, concentrate, remember, control impulses and do what needs to be done. Inattentive type (with the clumsy diagnostic label “Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder - without significant hyperactivity”) results in a daydreamer who may not be diagosed until later because their inattentive style is hard for them, but doesn’t disrupt the class. Hyperactive type...well, we know hyperactive when we see it. A hyperactive child is not merely a colossal pain in the backside to take care of (babysitters-won’t-return syndrome) - they need extra time, love, humour, consistency and attention from someone who understands them. And to be protected from themselves - because impulse control is poor, they are not deliberately doing foolish things, they are just so focused on getting their ball that the “don’t go on roads” bit drops out of their mind. Which is very normal at 2 and 3 years old, not so normal in an 8 or 10 year old. And these kids have to grow up.
Although it used to be thought that children grew out of ADHD, increasing numbers of adults are now being diagnosed with the condition. You do not catch ADD at 30, of course, it is a pervasive, perhaps lifelong neurological condition. Adults with ADHD are either people who were diagnosed as children or who - later in life - hit upon some hope-fully friendly person who said “Could you have ADD?”
You might get through school because your parents are supportive, and you are yourself very bright, even though you constantly lose the things you need for your assignments. Maybe even with good marks. But when you enter the less structured, less supported, more competitive environment of work or university, things start to fall apart. Many adults with ADHD have been under the impression for most of their lives that they are lazy, stupid, space cadets. If one of their children is diagnosed with ADHD suddenly the light-bulb (which they have finally re-membered to buy) goes on - “They can’t have ADHD...I was exactly the same as a child...still am like that...and I don’t...unless...?” (ding!).
Some people object to ADHD on religious grounds - Scientologists for example do not believe in psychiatry at all. Others are worried about “labeling” children. Children are smarter than you think, in that case. Labeling a child as “A wonderful, artistic sensitive lit-tle person who happens to have ADHD, a neurobiological condition which sometimes causes her to have problems that we can work out together” is a whole lot better than the labels a child will apply to themselves if they don’t have a clear understanding of why they have trouble in class, forget things, and ‘drift off”. You don’t want a label; “stupid”, “space cadet”, “thoughtless”, “lazy”, “bad”. If not enough information is given about what’s happen-ing and why, these are the labels children with ADHD come up with by themselves (with a little help from their friends).
Correctly diagnosed ADHD is caused by insufficient dopamine in the brain. That is all. The synapses in the brain need dopamine. If you have enough dopamine, then taking amphetamine will make you have too much and you will become edgy, difficult and anx-ious. Too little and you have ADHD. Stimulant medications such as amphetamines (and drugs such as ritalin are no more closely related to ice or speed, than codeine is related to heroin) increases the amount of dopamine in the brain - focus improves. At any age, Attention Deficit Disorder is managed, not cured. It can be managed through cognitive behavior therapy (using a day planner, timers, alarm and so forth), and some people find special diets help a little (if they have food intolerance in addition to their ADHD). There are (aren’t there always?) a great number of unproven treatments, exercise has proven to be fairly helpful. Newer medications are not as well established, but there are long-acting and non-controlled medication treatments now available. Medication, particularly the stimulants, far and away outperforms any other treatment. Just as no one expects the severe diabetic to control their sugar level without insulin, children and adults with ADHD have some control and can exert some effect on their behavior, but medication does have a significant place in treatment.
If you think you may be an adult with ADHD or you would just like to know more about the condition, you can find information and a self assessment scale at: http://www.addresources.org . As always; exercise more, and see your doctor if chronic lateness, underachievement and disorganization persist. Oh yes, make a list. Lists help a great deal. Light-bulbs.