March 10, 2008

HEALTH: Mar 05, Au Edition


Are party drugs really the best way to make a cancer patient’s last days more livable?

Aside from those who die suddenly in accidents, quietly in their sleep, or simply sitting at the dinner table, a good proportion of the population gets not only a fair bit of advance warning that their time is almost up, but also a rough estimate of when that will be. That diva of death, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, counseled coming to terms with and embracing death as a part of life, seeing it as a “transition” to a better place. She was quite a morbid little lady though – and perhaps a little impatient for death to come as well, having spent so much time preparing for it.

On the other side of the coin, there are those of us who would prefer to achieve immortality through not dying. Being firmly in this camp, I plan a last-minute panic, followed by months of denial – but having spent several years working in aged care, my experience is that very few people actually spit the dummy completely when given notice. Still, there is psychological work to do to wrap up a life, and it is painful to watch a patient who is trying to achieve some measure of acceptance and reconciliation but is exhausted by the effort.

Which brings up the question: how much intervention is appropriate to help this process along? Some people these days are answering, “a lot”. Pending a license from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Harvard will this year commence an FDA-approved trial of MDMA, better known as the party drug ecstasy, in end-stage cancer patients suffering from severe anxiety. Meanwhile in Los Angeles, the Harbor-UCLA Medical Centre is trialing the use of psilocybin (the active in ingredient magic mushrooms) in terminally ill cancer patients. But these are all very small studies, and are of the “qualitative”, or anecdotal, kind: see what happens, and then know what to look at if it progresses to the level of a drug trial. Essentially, they are pre-trial trials.

(This is not the first time since the heady days of Timothy Leary that U.S. researchers have toyed with illegal drugs to treat various mental conditions: the University of Arizona has lately reported success using psilocybin to treat obsessive compulsive disorder, while in Charleston, South Carolina, MDMA is being studied in victims of violence who are suffering post traumatic stress disorder.)

What some medical researchers have discovered is that ecstasy can make people happy. And expansive. And positive about themselves and at one with the world and like, man, there’s like love, just like, everything is love, you know? Feeling like this, they reckon, is better than being fearful and anxious, as most cancer patients are to some degree. What if we could make them happy? Give them tools to make the work of wrapping up a life and preparing for death a little easier? Or just generally unbridle the unconscious, facilitate communication with family, and defy the poet to go gently into that good night?

In the Harvard and UCLA studies, the patients will be evaluated, given low-to-moderate doses of drugs in the company of a psychiatrist, and then spend a fair few number of consecutive hours talking it all out. And then do it again a few weeks later. The studies aim to see if this helps people to deal with end of life issues. Certainly, most of the unpleasant side effects could be controlled in this very controlled setting. The idea seems to be that these are patients who may not have the time and energy for an in-depth rigorous sorting through of the subconscious issues in guided psychotherapy: if they are uninhibited and happy, it can all get done a lot quicker.

Myself, I’d like anything in my subconscious to stay put, and thus avoid both psychotherapy and hallucinogenic drugs for this reason. But putting aside the issue of how the process could be patented to make money, and determined to be safe, and then approved ten years hence, would anyone really want to find a psychiatrist to sit and talk with them for six hours at a stretch? Furthermore, how much damage might a “bad trip” do to someone in their last days? And if dad has always been a cranky old bugger, will it really help the family to hear him waxing lyrical under the influence? My own feeling is that there wouldn’t be a lot of takers for this kind of treatment, and that they would be a fairly self-selecting group. But what if it took off?

Personally, I don’t like the idea. It rings wrong to me, and I have been trying to find a way to come at it reasonably. Debating the idea of using hallucinogens like this often leads to overwrought fears about a dystopian, mood-managed future á la Huxley’s Brave New World, and brings up a lot of the same issues that came up when it was discovered that Prozac could not just cure depression, but smooth out challenging personality traits. There are, if you tilt your head and squint, some interesting ethical dilemmas here, but the reality is — as for the overwhelming majority of drugs that are tested for any medical use — that cost, profitability, patentability and practicality, as well as safety and the broader concerns of the community may well be immovable obstacles standing in the way of Nana ever getting high.

This small wave of tests involving medical mushrooms and prescription party drugs will probably die out with the patients in the studies, and people will continue to wrap up their lives in much the same ways they always have.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 08:04 PM | Comments (0)


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Why is the Bracks government sticking with a world-first roadside drug test that’s controversial, expensive, and will make Victorian motorists only marginally safer? JAMES MORROW crunches the numbers and finds that there are plenty of good reasons why no other government on Earth has gone near this scheme

When Ballarat truckie John De Jong was publicly humiliated for driving while under the influence of drugs – and then let off the hook (without so much as an apology, incidentally) when it turned out he was innocent – by the Victoria Police last year, it was widely assumed that the much-hyped roadside drug testing program that nabbed him would be allowed to die a quiet death. But instead of learning the potentially expensive lesson of De Jong’s case, Steve Bracks’ state government has pressed ahead with the program. And even though the police say they’ve changed their ways so that fewer innocent people will get caught in their net, a closer look at the program reveals that Victorian taxpayers are still being asked to sacrifice a lot of their own time and money for a program with highly speculative results.

“One in 100 drivers found taking drugs” screamed the headlines when Victoria’s police finally lifted the lid on their controversial roadside drug testing program a few weeks ago. The state’s roads, went the implication, were choc-a-block with stoned ravers and speed-addled truckies: according to the police, around one in every hundred drivers tested by the program were found to have either THC, the active ingredient in marijuana or methamphetamines (or some combination of the two) in their system. Amazingly, this number was proportionally far greater than the number of motorists caught driving while under the influence of alcohol, a legal and readily-available product: As Melbourne’s Age noted in its report on the revived program, “the yearly average strike rate for motorists caught drink-driving is about one in every 250 tested”.

Yet no one asked the question, could these new numbers for drugged drivers really be correct?

The famous American bank robber Willie Sutton was once asked by a reporter why he robbed banks. “Because that’s where the money is,” came the succinct reply, and it’s hard to fault that logic. To arrive at these incredible 1-in-100 numbers, the sort of headline-grabbing figures that would not only consign John De Jong’s case to ancient history but win an extension of the program from the state parliament when it comes up for review later this year, it’s clear that the cops went the Willie Sutton route.

In fact, despite initial claims that these numbers were arrived at largely by “random” methods, Victoria’s scare-story numbers were almost entirely the product of some very selective targeting. At one operation, targeting the New Year’s Day Summerdayze dance festival, almost one out of every ten drivers tested positive. It’s not clear how many drivers were pulled over on their way out of Summerdayze (the police won’t reveal such operational details about that or any other sting), but it’s easy to see how, in choosing this sort of venue, Victorian cops had an easy opportunity to up the numbers supporting this program.

Do the math: Imagine that, say, fifty drivers were stopped in one night’s operation, and five of them tested positive – an extraordinary result, ten times that of the general population, but not at all unthinkable. If we take these statistical outliers out of the rest of the numbers, things become clearer: Stopping those other 1,450 other drivers would have led to just ten hits, cutting the overall success rate to just .68 of one percent.

Now on one level it makes sense that if you want to catch people who are taking drugs, go to the sort of places where they hang out and party. (Though whether or not the time and effort spent sitting outside a dance festival could not have been more profitably spent patrolling the roads for dangerous driving is another question). But it is also ridiculous on its face for Victoria’s police to suggest that because cops managed to get a one percent strike rate through highly selective targeting, then one out of every hundred cars one sees on Victoria’s roads is being driven by someone under the influence of drugs.

This would be the equivalent of saying that, say, the number of drunks on the road on New Year’s Eve is the same as those out there on any other evening. Furthermore, while it may be tempting to compare testing for stoners and drunks, the procedure for administering these saliva tests are a good deal more invasive than simply asking a driver to blow into a tube. A driver who gets stopped in by one of these sweeps is asked to put a saliva collector in his or her mouth, and then wait five minutes for the results to come back. (And refusal is not an option, but rather carries with it the presumption of on-the-spot guilt). If the sample comes back negative, the driver is free to go; otherwise, they have to produce a second sample, which, if it turns up positive, is then sent to a lab for further analysis by more accurate tests. In the meantime, then, they have to wait for up to three weeks to find out if they will be prosecuted for an offence.

And not only is the test more involved and time-consuming for the (at least) 99 out of 100 drivers who are guilty of nothing but who are still compelled to sit by the side of the road for five minutes waiting to see if they will become the next John De Jong, unlike breathalyzers, with these drug tests there’s far less link between a positive result and actual driving impairment. That’s because these tests can pick up drugs taken long before the driver got behind the wheel – thus a joint smoked on a Friday, while illegal, would likely not impair a driver Saturday. And isn’t the point of this whole program road safety?

So why did the Victorian cops decide to go down this route and become, as they proudly proclaim in all their literature, the first po
lice department in the entire world to set up this sort of roadside drug-testing regime? Beyond the basic motive force that causes any bureaucracy to seek as many good headlines as possible while expending as little effort as possible, much of the justification seems to come from work done by Dr. Olaf H. Drummer of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, and especially a presentation he gave to the Australasian Association of Clinical Biochemists in 2004.

The presentation was sponsored by BioMediq Pty. Ltd., the Doncaster, Vic.-based agent for the UK company that makes the Cozart Rapiscan – the same test that snared truckie De Jong. In his talk, Drummer talked about the various ways drugged drivers can be a danger on the road (no argument here), but then drew the rather long bow that by spending $1 million to Rapiscan 10,000 Victorian drivers, the state could save a $15 million. As Drummer’s PowerPoint noted, this represents a “Cost benefit ration 15:1 ! [sic]”.

But there are a couple of problems with Drummer’s study. For one thing, the arithmetic behind the purported $15 million savings feels like it was concocted in a trendy outcomes-based grade school maths classroom: it’s not whether the answer is right or wrong that is important, but rather that everyone feels good about the result. Drummer’s presentation states that “If drug testing and wider police enforcement reduces use of drugs and driving by … 5%” (italics added), the “reduction in drug use saves potentially $15 million” (again, italics added). Yet if 10,000 people were tested, and fully 1 percent of them were on drugs as police statistics imply (i.e., the entire program took 100 drivers), it is hard to figure how that handful of drug-takers could wreak $15 million worth of damage.

Who needs a roadside drug test when for some motorists their faces are a dead giveaway? Californian woman Penny Wood traded her privacy for reduced prison time on traffic and petty crime misdemeanours, by agreeing to let police publicise her mugshot as a warning about the ravages of five years’ methamphetamine abuse.

In other words, roadside drug testing could save lives and money; on the other hand, it might not. Since the only sub-stances the current test looks for are pot and speed, then it stands to reason that the smart – well, if not smart, than at least cagey – drug abuser who was looking to get behind the wheel would simply switch to a different poison. Already this seems to be happening, as a quick scan of posts on forums hosted by, an Australian dance party website, suggests.

(“We need to send out decoys,” one participant jokingly suggested amidst the debate. “The first car (which has a straight driver of course) that leaves in each convoy from the party puts drops in their eyes to cause their eyes to dilate, then drives in an erratic manner to attract attention, the cops then pull them over, see their huge eyes then perform the test on them. During this time, the remainder of the crew slip past. Once the test is complete and passed, everyone goes on their merry way.”)

Victoria’s drivers are used to getting ripped off when they get behind the wheel. Recall that last year, that the state government had to refund $14 million dollars to some 90,000 motorists incorrectly fined by speed cameras on Melbourne’s Western Ring Road, and spend a further $6 million compensating drivers for hardship when their licenses were incorrectly taken from them by dodgy technology – again, of course, all in the name of safety.

Amazingly (especially considering the embarrassment of John De Jong’s case) Victoria’s police seem more than happy to once again let technology do their work for them, rather than get out on the roads and into the public transport system and look to stop unsafe or criminal behaviour in progress. In the process, Victorians will be forced to give up another little bit of their time and freedom, all in the inarguable name of safety.

And that represents one of the biggest, yet most under-reported, problems with the whole program: while roadside drug testing may pull a few stoners off the road, it also represents yet another small erosion in the personal liberty of all Australians (New South Wales is considering a similar program at the moment, and it is unlikely to stay confined within Victoria’s borders). Part of the tradeoff of living in a free society is that people are willing to take on a bit more risk in return for having a government that, as much as possible leaves people alone to make their own decisions and go about their business.

Australia is not, and should not become, one of those societies where cops and other agents of the state have the power to question and detain people without reasonable cause; that’s the sort of thing many Aussies (or their parents or grandparents) came here to get away from.
While the pain of losing a friend or relative to an auto accident is, of course, incalculable, there is very little indication that an expensive drug-testing regime for motorists will do much more than cause a hassle, heartache, and ultimately further embarrassment for the Victorian government.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 07:45 PM | Comments (0)

X IN THE SUBURBS: Apr 05, AU Edition


Ecstasy and other party drugs used to be an import-only business. But now, home-grown gangs have figured out the trick to pill-making and are flooding the market with their goods. JAMES MORROW in Sydney and SHAUN DAVIES in Melbourne report on the growing drug industry in our own backyards

March 9, 2005: Federal agents stop a van traveling down the Hume Highway near the Victoria-New South Wales border. After arresting the two men on board – a 39-year-old Sydneysider and a 31-year-old Melburnian – cops find five 44-gallon drums of chemicals that can be used to make MDMA, or ecstasy. That night, armed with search warrants, police sweep through a number of suburbs in Sydney and Melbourne, including Pyrmont – an increasingly trendy and cashed-up inner-city neigbourhood which is also home to Sydney’s Star City Casino – and make several more arrests and seizures.

Amongst the cops’ haul for the evening: “proceeds of crime”,
including a 4WD Porsche Cayenne and a Lamborghini, as well as five more 44-gallon drums of what are known as “precursor chemicals”. According to the Australian Federal Police, “a conservative estimate of the MDMA pills capable of being produced from this amount of precursor is four million tablets, which has an estimated street value of $160 million”. But while the AFP was quick to trumpet this “largest-ever seizure” of precursor chemicals, the bust only scratched the surface of a growing trade in so-called “party drugs”: MDMA (better known as ecstasy), as well as GHB, methamphetamine, the animal tranquilizer ketamine, and a variety of other chemicals that are increasingly popular with Australian youth. According to figures published in 2001 by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, one in five Australians between ages 20 and 29 had tried ecstasy – numbers that experts agree has only gone up in the four years since.

Fast-forward to Melbourne, the following week. On Sunday night of the Labour Day long weekend in Melbourne, the dance floor at Revolver, one of the city’s best-known clubs, is packed with sweaty bodies. It is well past midnight and you’d expect the pulsing electronic music to be driving the crowd into a frenzy. But the atmosphere is actually quite subdued: most dancers are only swinging their arms in time to the beat, and some of them are barely moving their feet at all.

It may be that the crowd is not enjoying the DJ, but an equally likely explanation is that a batch of “smacky” pills has been doing the rounds. A “smacky” pill generally contains some MDMA, but it’s adulterated with another drug, usually ketamine or heroin, which leaves users in a stupor. Contrary to commonly held ideas, not all pills sold as ecstasy drive users to all-night dancing and potentially fatal dehydration.

Some of the drug users in Revolver are easy to spot. One young clubber, dressed in low-slung jeans and a trucker’s cap, has obviously overindulged. He stumbles about the club with a slack jaw and a faraway look in his eyes, disorientated and seemingly unsure of where to put himself. Eventually he collapses on a couch in the corner of the room with his legs splayed out, rolls his head back and stares at the ceiling.

But most of the people who have taken ecstasy are more in control, and to spot them you have to know what to look for. Furious chewing is one clue: ecstasy makes users grind their teeth incessantly, and users chew gum to prevent aching jaw muscles the next morning. Another sure sign is excited hugging and sloppy smiling – ecstasy’s empathetic qualities give users a seemingly uncontrollable urge to tell anyone within earshot just how amazing it is to be alive.

Drug_002.jpgEcstasy comes on in a rush. About 40 minutes after swallowing a pill, your body and brain are consumed with overwhelming pleasure: this is the strongest part of the trip and users refer to it as “peaking”. After about an hour the intensity of the trip will decrease slightly, although the effects won’t really start to wear off until a good three or four hours later.

The comedown is difficult and many users will take multiple pills over the course of an evening to prolong the rush and put off the inevitable.

Those who use ecstasy regularly agree that in the past six months the market has been flooded with high-quality ecstasy. The pills are purer now, which means longer and better peaks and easier comedowns. Users have become pickier and local drug manufacturers, it seems, have been rushing to meet this demand.

The Hume Highway bust, and several others over the past year (none of which have made a dent in supply on the street, incidentally), lends further credence to the theory that ready-made ecstasy is no longer being imported on the scale it once was, and that instead, domestic gangs are now bringing in just the ingredients and manufacturing it themselves. This was hinted at in a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency report last year which noted that, “There also have been several large-scale 3,4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), a.k.a. Ecstasy, laboratory seizures in the Sydney and Melbourne metropolitan areas. The chemicals seized at these MDMA laboratories originated from locations throughout Southeast Asia. Australian law enforcement and customs officials are also seizing increasing amounts of sassafras oil being smuggled through various ports-of-entry, such as Sydney and Melbourne. Sassafras oil produces safrole, which can be used as a precursor chemical in the manufacture of MDMA”.

Or, as an ecstasy user calling himself Zaki put it recently, “I think Australia has stepped up to the mark and shown we are not only good at swimming, cricket [and] rugby. We are now among the best in good, clean and therefore harm-minimising MDMA production”.

The amount of harm MDMA does is another question (see
below), but the fact remains that no matter how many busts the police make, ecstasy prices remain stable at around $30 to $40 a hit, and there is never any shortage of supply in the dance clubs of any of the capital cities.

“The market is so big, and we know that there are lots of different ways that pills are getting here”, says Johnboy Davidson. “We’ll see big busts, you know, three million pills or something like that, and still supply won’t be affected.” Davidson is the spokesman for Bluelight, an Australian website that has grown to be the biggest online drugs forum in the world. A public advocate for the principles of harm minimisation, Davidson is careful not to paint himself as a wild-eyed libertarian of the “legalize it” stripe, but rather calls for a more “realistic approach” to drug use in Australia. According to Davidson, the international ecstasy trade began in earnest in the 1990s but, until recently, Australian drug traffickers haven’t had the means to make their own product. “The Golden Triangle states switched over from heroin to methamphetamine production in the ‘90s, and then they switched over to MDMA as well,” he says. “A lot of the supply routes came through Indonesia. There used to be a triangular trade from Europe, across Indonesia, and into Australia, but then it became more smugglers from China or Thailand bringing drugs into Australia via Indonesia. Oddly enough, the trade in Indonesia is run by a lot of African and even Israeli gangsters.”

Today, however, some of the best ecstasy on the market is thought to be home-grown, and in the past six months to eight months, the Australian market has been flooded with high-quality MDMA and other pills. Ecstasy is given street names according to the colour of the pills and the type of logo that is stamped on them: Red and green Mitsubishis (red or green pills with the Mitsubishi automaker’s logo stamped on them), yellow doves, red Rolexes and red Russians have all been popular on the market lately and, according to those who take them, these drugs are more pure than anything they’ve had for years.

For Australian drug traffickers to make their own ecstasy takes both expertise – about equivalent to that of a third-year university chemistry student – and equipment, including precursor chemicals and a pill-pressing machine. It is this second item that, experts say, is one of the hardest and most dangerous tools of the trade to come up with.

“Pill presses are a monitored thing and you can’t buy one without a very good reason…having one is like printing money, and it’s one of those things that can get ripped off as well”, says Davidson, who makes a gun with his fingers and demonstrates what can happen if a rival crew hears about the existence of a pill machine. “Most of them would be only about the size of a washing machine. There was a bust three or four years ago somewhere in a block of flats in inner-city Melbourne where a neighbour complained about a guy who had his clothes-dryer on all night. So the landlord looked in, realised what it was, and told the cops. Then a full production lab was busted”.

So who was behind the Hume Highway bust? Cops are tight-lipped, not wanting to compromise their investigation. But speculation is that with the bust taking place near Wodonga, a small town that is also home to several motorcycle gangs and a crime rate far higher than similarly-sized Australian communities, one crew may have heard about a rival’s shipment and ratted it out to the police. More telling, though, is that the amounts involved show a far greater ability of Australian drug peddlers to acquire the chemicals needed to make their own MDMA, rather than purchasing pills or powder from overseas. Says Davidson, “a tonne of precursors is…an astonishing amount.

We’d only thought people were making small batches, maybe ten to twenty kilograms at a time, but this really gives you an idea of
the market”.

With demand so high, it is clear that even with a ten-fold increase in resources, the police would be hard-pressed to make much of a dent in the local market for party. The urgent question thus becomes, are there chickens that will come home to roost from an entire generation’s chemical bender, or is a young person’s going out to a dance club and popping a few pills occasionally no more dangerous than him or her having a really big night at the pub? In the short term, the latter is probably correct: on any given weekend night, far more emergency department admissions will be made as a result of alcohol and the behaviours it inspires than as a result of MDMA or other party drugs.

“Drugs are always going to be a major factor in presentations at emergency departments, both for hyperventilation and dehydration as well as for people who might have had some underlying psychiatric problem”, says Dr. Bob Batey, a clinical advisor at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. “With that said, it’s probably a minority of users who show up. At the moment, except for the people who show up with acute medical consequences – which are often a one-off – we don’t have much long-term data.”

While this may seem to give ecstasy a reason-ably clean bill of health, or at least place it somewhere in the shouldn’t-have-had-that-last-Bundy area of youthful overindulgence, Batey cautions that it’s still early, so the full effects of the drug are still not yet known. And while he says that ecstasy definitely leads to structural changes in the brain and has problems associated with long-term depression, “we need more information before saying anything dogmatic about
the substance”.

Still, “people who say that pure MDMA is harmless are most probably wrong”, says University of Sydney psychpharmacologist Dr. Iain McGregor, who explains that ecstasy works by flooding the brain with the neurotransmitter serotonin – a chemical that not only regulates mood, but is also thought to help memory and thinking skills. (Prozac and other anti-depressants in its class work specifically by preventing serotonin from being reabsorbed into the brain. This is why it not only works as a treatment for depression, but also explains the so-called “Prozac effect”, in which some healthy patients who take the drug report both improved mood as well as sharper thinking and greater overall brain function). “Ecstasy may cause a surge in serotonin, but there is a sting in the tail: for weeks or months you may have lowered levels, and in the days after a binge, there is a documented depression”, he says – a well-documented phenomenon amongst users, known as “suicide Tuesday”. “Studies we’ve done in our lab here have found that if we give lab rats ecstasy regularly for three months they wind up with anxiety and poorer memory. Additional, if you’ve taken a huge amount of ecstasy and really knock down your serotonin levels, they may never recover to where they were before”. Further weight to the ecstasy-depression link was uncovered recently by researchers at Cambridge University in England, who found that in people with certain genetic make-ups, MDMA could cause an increase in depressive symptoms.
But the bigger danger is mixing drugs, or worse, taking unknown substances such as “smacky” pills – a message Davidson has been preaching for ages. If you have to take something, says McGregor, “you’re better off with pure MDMA if you know that’s what it is. It’s certainly a lot better than methamphetamine [which is often sold as ecstasy], which has a different sort of toxicity. We see a lot of real problems when meth and MDMA are combined, especially by accident, because there is a real exaggerated toxicity”.

Perhaps the most sobering words for ecstasy users come from Dr. Batey, who points out that “like cannabis ten years ago, we didn’t think it was going to be a big problem, but anything that is altering the neurotransmitter system causes real concern
for long-term potential damage”: a lot of people may be able to come through their experiences unscathed, but for users prone to depression or other psychological ailments, there could be a lot of agony after the ecstasy.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 10:58 AM | Comments (0)

November 27, 2007

Aspartame: Sweet Little Lies, Sept 07 issue

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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 and in the folder

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: 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 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 . Also Dr. H.J. Roberts, “Does Aspartame Cause Human Brain Cancer?” Journal Of Advancement In Medicine Vol. 4, No. 4 (Winter 1991), pgs. 231-241, and his book, Aspartame Disease: An Ignored Epidemic, Sunshine Sentinel Press, Florida, USA, 2001, Website:
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 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 in section “Aviation Dr. Blaylock’s position paper on aspartame and pilots.” Also see
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.
For details of how to get aspartame out of your system check the Websites –,, and the Aspartame Toxicity Center, A new video exposing the aspartame industry is “Sweet Misery: A Poisoned World”, available from Email:, Tel (USA) – 520 – 624 -9710. Also see the medical text on aspartame: “Aspartame Disease: An Ignored Epidemic”, available online from 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.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 09:29 PM | Comments (0)

August 12, 2007

The Vintner's Luck: March 07 issue



How NZ and Australian wines took on the world, and won

It’s not often we get a chance to celebrate international success these days, but as SELWYN PARKER in London discovered, they are seriously devouring the fruit of our vines, there:

Although it was in the depths of winter - January 15-16 to be precise, there was hardly a spare seat at Lord’s cricket ground in London. The event was under cover and it was at the famed Nursery Pavilion End of the ground. The occasion? The annual tasting of the New Zealand vintage when 120 Kiwi vignerons come over to present their creations in the world’s most important export market.

Every wine-exporting country judges its success by its performance in the British market, more specifically by percentage share and by average retail price per bottle. The tasting is both a proud showcase and a nerve-wracking examination for the New Zealand industry as buyers, wine pundits and oenophiles in general swirl, smell, see, sniff, spit and sometimes swallow their way through 600 wines.

How times have changed. Twenty-six years ago, when the British wine establishment was invited to the inaugural tasting of New Zealand wines, it was held in an upstairs room in New Zealand House. Those journalists and members of the trade who bothered to turn up only did so because they were intrigued to learn we produced something other than lamb, wool, butter, kiwifruit and All Blacks. New Zealand wine!

It was almost a contradiction in terms. In the eighties hardly anybody in Britain who wasn’t a New Zealander drank our beer (and still doesn’t), let alone our wine. “Most people came to laugh”, remembers veteran trade representative Philip Atkinson who organised it all. “I had to work extremely hard to get them there.”

The debut of New Zealand wine on the international stage could hardly be described as a glittering occasion. There were less than fifty wines on the table and they were only there by virtue of a mad dash from the airport in a Ford Cortina with a panicking Atkinson at the wheel. They had been freighted over in an RNZAF Hercules that arrived late. Knees knocking, the few New Zealand wine-growers to brave the pundits and retailers had brought over mainly whites, mostly sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, and some reds, mostly cabernet. Their anxiety was understandable. Apart from a few bottles of Cresta Dore and Bakano, labels of the sixties since mercifully buried, no New Zealand wine had ever been brought to Britain.

As it happened, it all worked out surprisingly well. As Margaret Harvey, the former Mt. Roskill girl who has helped pioneer New Zealand wine in Britain, remembers, the message was generally encouraging but blunt. “If you’re going to sell your wine here at all, it will be your whites”, the producers were told. “Your reds are yeech. Don’t show them here again”. The subsequent reviews for the whites were reasonably encouraging and the wine tastings became an annual, if minor, event on the British industry’s calendar. A stake had been put in the ground.

Wine pundits were one thing however, buyers another. Out in the boon docks of the retail trade whose shelves were stacked with European labels, it was hard going. Margaret Harvey had come to Britain as a pharmacist in 1975 but in an act of faith abandoned her profession to establish Fine Wines of New Zealand in 1985 out of her house in Camden Town at a time when the advertising authorities might have taken legal action for the first word in the company’s title. It was a one-woman operation and the owner remembers plodding around the wine clubs, pushing the New Zealand vintage night after night, often not getting home until the early hours.

Others like salesman Richard Goodman were also labouring in this stony vineyard. Representing Cooks and Montana at various times, he took on the supermarkets after the pundits told the growers: “You can’t expect us to write about your wine if we can’t tell readers where to buy it.” He and Atkinson often worked together, knocking on door after door.

“We got thrown out of a few places”, Atkinson remembers.

The message was simple: “You’ve got to stock New Zealand wine. We’ll do anything to get it on your shelves”.

And shelf by shelf, that’s what they did. The breakthrough was a supply contract with nationwide liquor retailer Threshers, which has been a friend of New Zealand wine ever since. The first supermarket to be breached was Waitrose, a chain with a reputation for fine fare, and other retailers gradually followed suit. Today the Kiwi product is found everywhere. Even Berry Bros & Rudd, purveyors of fine wines – French in particular -- for 300 years, started stocking the higher-quality labels a few years back.

Meantime the product was improving all the time. At first more enthusiastic than skilful, winegrowers began to adopt more professional practices under the tutelage of experts such as Australia’s Dr. Richard Smart, a world authority on cold-climate viticulture. They were quick to learn and the result was better trellising, leaf-plucking and spraying among other improvements. In Britain this was noticed as the pundits approved of the more subtle flavours instead of the “aggressive herbaceousness” that characterized the first offerings.

As the High Street came to stock more New Zealand wine, the believers in the government trade office found extra dollars to boost sales. One of the results was the first appearance at the London Wine Trade Fair of 1986, a landmark occasion that was followed by a splendid, celebratory dinner at Methuselah’s in Victoria Street. The dinner was a far cry from the budget tasting of 1981. Instead of a mad dash in a Ford Cortina, all the food and drink as well as the chiefs were flown in by Air New Zealand. Everybody who could be there was: Morton Estate, Delegat’s, Montana among others. One of the best investments ever made for the country, let alone its wine, it woke the industry up to how far the country had come gastronomically and vinously.

“It was a tiny participation at the fair but it was a big dinner”, recalls Atkinson who organised that too. “That made the difference. Suddenly we were real.”

But sales hadn’t taken off. Even a decade ago the Brits hardly deigned to wet their lips with the New Zealand grape. In 1996 the UK grudgingly took NZ$40.6m worth of New Zealand wine, which is barely a drop in this enormous bucket, and much of that was drunk by a hard core of expats and others who had an acquaintance with New Zealand, had tasted our wines and therefore knew better.

However with the groundwork done, the momentum was with New Zealand. From having hardly a foot in the door, sales climbed – rather, rocketed – from that $40.6m to $167m in 2006, an increase of over 400 per cent. Last year overall consumption in the British market fell while the volume of New Zealand wine sold, running against the trend, picked up by four per cent. It’s been an incredible decade envied by all other wine-exporting nations.

At the same time success in the UK market spun off into sales in other markets, like a badge of approval. Last year global volumes topped the magic half billion barrier -- to be precise, $512m -- for the first time. With the help of British distributors, the New Zealand vintage has even cracked the notoriously protectionist European Union. The Dutch drank $10m worth last year ($1.2m ten years ago), Germany $3m (well under a million ten years ago) and Ireland, home of Guinness, over $8m (nowhere near a million). The French, of course, still hardly touch our stuff.

The original pundits were right about the whites. They quickly became the building blocks of this expansion, in particular sauvignon. But nobody ever predicted that New Zealand pinot noir, a difficult wine to produce, would excite the British palate, let alone pinot gris, syrah and the trendy viognier. Sales of pinot noir in particular, the vintage du jour, have almost doubled year on year.

Most galling for rival exporting nations, New Zealand has somehow bagged the high end of the general retail market as consumers fell in love with our diversity of wine-making styles. It became a voyage of discovery for them to sample wines produced over an enormous distance of 1600kms, spanning the latitudes of 36 – 45 degrees. As the official body New Zealand Winegrowers points out, if that 1600kms were in the northern hemisphere it would run from Bordeaux to southern Spain. This huge range of wines is one reason why New Zealand occupies a premium position in the market, one that Australian producers would very much like.

Australia sells a lot more wine into Britain than does New Zealand (over £1bn worth last year). But as one of the bibles of the market, The Drinks Business, pointed out in January, it’s the New Zealand vintage that attracts the higher margins: “Australia’s average bottle price of £4.28 is second in the UK only to New Zealand with a stellar average price of £5.93.” Nobody is exactly sure whether the average price of an Aussie bottle held its own last year, declined or edged up by two pence (as ACNielsen reckons), but it certainly hasn’t done much by comparison with New Zealand wine. In other words, if New Zealand’s wine exporters were cricketers Shane Warne would have been hit all over the park.

The overall strategy is not to let the side down by going for the quick quid. Pioneers and long-time observers of New Zealand wine’s acceptance in Britain and other exports put this down at least partly to the team spirit among producers. “They have a collaborative approach. They want to make the whole New Zealand category,” says Atkinson. He’s watched in amazement as the biggest names in our industry extol the virtues of a rival label whose owner is caught up elsewhere.

Other regions don’t always behave like this. Wine pundits still shudder over the way Californian grower Charles Shaw did nothing for the reputation of his terroir by releasing Two Buck Chuck at giveaway prices to reduce a surplus. And they’re not too sure about one of the big successes of the last two years, the French Red Bicyclette launched by the US giant E&J Gallo, because a. it isn’t French, and b. California has no special claim to cycling. As an advertisement for Californian wine, it likewise did nothing.

Although New Zealand’s prices continue to head in the right direction, even the prestige labels are a long way – perhaps half a century – behind the equivalent French ones. For example, one of the top-priced Kiwi wines at the venerable Berry Bros & Rudd is the 2004 Mountford Estate pinot noir from Waipara at £232 [$650] for a 12-bottle case in bond. Although it’s hardly comparing apples with apples with apples -- or grapes with grapes -- that compares with £9,900 [$27,730] for just eight bottles of the 1967 Chateau d’Yquem sauterne. At the top end, French wines still have snob value.

ACROSS the Channel the attitude of old world producers towards our parvenu wine region remained one of rock-solid superiority throughout most of the nineties. This is understandable because they do, after all, have history on their side. “My family has been tending the vines here for 15 generations”, Monsieur Thomann, a vigneron in the tiny Alsatian village of Ammerschwihr in France, told me a few years ago when I was researching a book there. He said it in a matter-of-fact way but I worked out later that his forebears must have tended the grape in that very village from the 1550s.

He showed off his cellars with their cobwebbed, oval barrels that had survived the bombs and shells of two world wars that had almost destroyed the village and he plied me with books about wine -- its spirituality, mysticism, romance and general place in the history of Alsace and France. Monsieur Thomann was much less interested in the technicalities of viticulture than in the tradition. For him wine-making was almost a branch of the priesthood.

The way he went about his business illustrates the enormous gulf between old and new world producers such as New Zealand. M. Thomann had never considered exporting. “Why should I when I sell everything I produce here?” he asked.

He ran a degustation vente business – selling straight from the cellar. Connoisseurs simply walked in off the street, some having driven hundreds of miles from Belgium, Germany or Switzerland. They pressed a buzzer and sat down for a taste (degustation) and a chat with the man himself about the grape and the wine world in general (his son was the sommelier to the president of France). Thereupon he made his sale (vente), generally by the case load.

But now it’s all changed. New Zealand in common with other new world producers have become officially a threat, New Zealand more for what it represents than for how much it sells. “In this high-growth sector, where wine tends to become an increasingly industrialized and technological product, the dynamics unquestionably favour New World producers,” an authority wrote in French in a landmark article last year in the magazine L’Expansion. “By that I mean North and South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand”. While the “old continent” still dominates the market on the basis of claiming three quarters of total production, “its pedestal was breaking up.”

The statistics illustrate what the writer, a student of global wine markets, means. By the end of the eighties, Europe could still claim 96 per cent of all exports and was absolutely top of the heap. Now it’s down to 84 per cent and, if exports between EU countries are excluded, the losses are much more spectacular. That puts the old continent’s share of global markets at 66 per cent. In short, although New Zealand winegrowers can claim only some of the credit, a complacent Europe has been comprehensively thrashed in the higher-margin, British market where in 2005 new world wine sales exceeded those of the old continent for the first time.

That also happened to be the first year New Zealand sold more wine overseas than at home, an alarming fact duly recorded in France too. Producers there cannot believe that New Zealand not only made all that wine but sold it all as well. “Between 2004 and 2005, exports of New Zealand wine went from 31m litres to 51.4m litres, an increase of 60 per cent!” noted Viti-Net, an influential French wine industry website, in mid-2006. It added that the Kiwis vignerons are “focused on quality and the price of their wines is relatively high”.

Despite the stratospheric prices fetched by labels such as Chateau d’Yquem, that’s exactly what the French and Europeans have not been doing. As the EU’s agriculture czarina, Mariann Fischer-Boel, points out, the vineyards are churning out vin ordinaire. “We spend far too much money disposing of surpluses instead of building our quality and competitiveness”, she warned in mid-2006. Consumption was down, new world exports were making “huge inroads” and Europe was “producing too much wine for which there is no market”.

The result of these massive surpluses is that a lot of wine in France is subsidized and practically given away. At a supermarket it’s quite possible to buy a bottle of excellent local wine in Provence for a few dollars. And the wine that is not sold at all is distilled on payment of still further subsidies into something else. The whole system is blatantly protectionist and unfair to exporting nations like New Zealand, and it’s been going on for a long time.

Consider these amazing numbers. Well over 400m euros [$740m] has been spent on the “restructuring programme” for each of the last six years, but without much restructuring being done. In 2005 alone, 790m euros [$1.46bn] was spent on various “market intervention” measures that included subsidies for public and private storage, plus another 31m euros [$57m] for “grubbing-up” useless vineyards. (And still New Zealand beat the Europeans in the British market!)

The last figure says a lot. Although there have long been generous incentives to grub up loss-making vines, producers have shown a declining interest in doing so while pocketing all kinds of subsidies for making unsaleable wine. Back in 1993 for example, the EU spent 400m euros [$739m] on grubbing up, nearly thirteen times more than now.

And it’s going to get worse. In normal times Fischer-Boel, who is trying to reform all this, disposes of a budget of nearly 1.3bn euros [$2.2bn] a year purely to shore up European wine producers. France, whose vineyards account for 30 per cent of the EU total, collects the lion’s share of that. But any day now the czarina will announce new proposals offering even more generous encouragement to reform this deeply discriminatory system. The new plan is to reactivate the moribund grubbing-up scheme. This time there will be 2.4bn euros [$4.43bn] to flatten up to 400,000 hectares. Cynics of EU agricultural reforms may note that 400,000 hectares is not a lot of vineyard out of a total 3.4m hectares devoted to the grape. Moreover the grubbing-up is voluntary.

“This is a great opportunity to put the EU wine sector back at the top where it belongs,” hopes Mrs. Fischer-Boel. “We must not waste it”.

On past performance however, they probably will.

SO WHERE does New Zealand wine go from here? The British market can only get tougher, especially for the newer and smaller vineyards. The biggest supermarket chain, Tesco, is reportedly dropping ten per cent of its wine list from its shelves. Even to get onto a major chain’s shelves at all can require up-front payments of £50,000 [$140,000], which clearly favours the corporate vineyards. As Margaret Harvey says, “it’s one thing to make wine, another to sell it.”

And Europe is fighting back. French producers are developing their own labels instead just supplying others while relaxing restrictive labeling and other regulations. Italy has mounted a campaign to re-launch in Britain. Other regions are following suit – South Africa has managed to hike its margins in Britain and Australia is belatedly dealing with the surplus that has led to sales of low-cost, bulk wine.

There are risks to New Zealand vineyards. For example, at around $5m a year the R&D budget is pathetic by European standards. And now that Kiwi labels have got above the parapet, they could get shot at. New Zealand Winegrowers is concerned that some markets could play rough by introducing protection by another name, for instance by insisting on zero residues.

But that could also point the way forward in a market that’s turning greener by the month. British consumers have started to agitate for sustainability – the “carbon-free footprint” – in their food and drink. According to veterans of the market like Margaret Harvey, who is the only New Zealand-born woman to hold the Master of Wine qualification, sustainably produced wine would certainly make it easier to sell in Britain and beyond. “It’s very exciting,” she enthused. “Everybody should be on the sustainability programme if we want to keep commanding those high prices.”

That would certainly give Kiwi wine an edge that matches its image, similar to the one Australia had a decade or so ago. Over here New Zealand wine is regarded as new and exciting, the product of young and enthusiastic, even iconoclastic, vignerons who dare to play the game differently.

Like the All Blacks, you could say.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 03:17 PM | Comments (0)

March 09, 2007


Imagine trying to cut the road toll by making it illegal to ride a bicycle. Then imagine trying to reduce teen alcohol consumption by putting a hefty new tax on port and sherry. Little wonder, as HAMISH CARNACHAN discovers, that the wine industry is becoming a whine industry as opposition to the tax grows

Bloodied, battered and intoxicated teenagers line the waiting room, which by 2am looks more like an army field hospital than an accident and emergency centre. Some temporarily tend to their own injuries with gauze dressings thrust at them by overworked nurses, others, passed out on a friend’s shoulder, will stay comfortably comatose until a frantic doctor finally gets a chance to wake them and examine their wounds.

It’s not too hard to find the fallout of youth binge drinking - venture out to any emergency ward late Friday or Saturday night and you’ll discover the bloody aftermath. Some will be less fortunate of course – they’ll end up in hospital proper with injuries more serious than superficial scrapes and cuts – but most will make it safely home and have nothing to nurse but a nasty hangover.

Still, the social and economic cost of such excesses is something to cause concern - a host of studies and statistics say so. But is hiking up the price of liquor the best way of tackling the matter and was the secrecy surrounding the Government’s latest move, the implementation of the so-called "teen-tax", warranted?

Well, the Government felt that way when, much like medical staff working late into the night, the legislative practitioners hurried an emergency operation through Parliament in an effort to stem the social haemorrhaging – or so they say.

In his capacity as acting Minister of Customs, Jim Anderton spearheaded the procedure to pass the Customs and Excise (Alcoholic Beverages) Amendment Bill. This has effectively increased the excise duty that the government charges on beverages containing more than 14 percent, but no more than 23 percent, of alcohol-by-volume.

Prior to Parliament ramming through the new law, unannounced, some ‘light spirits’ in the 14 to 23 percent alcohol-by-volume range were not charged for their actual content of alcohol. The Government argues that many manufacturers were using the loophole to sell products at the higher percentage end of the bracket whilst still benefiting from an arbitrarily low tax rate.

The new tax increase, says Anderton, is "to promote safer communities by discouraging underage teenagers and children from misusing alcohol".

Essentially, the ‘light spirits’ Anderton is hoping to target with his new law are the diluted versions of high-alcohol liquor like whiskey, gin and vodka – beverages the minister says are the biggest cause of grief for youths.

"The products that mainly fall into this category are the very cheap light spirits often used by young people," he says. "This is an important piece of legislation to address a serious challenge being faced by far too many New Zealand families.

"The drinking habits of too many young New Zealanders are of great concern. Recent surveys have shown an increase in the level of heavy drinking amongst the young. This trend is both dangerous and unacceptable to our society."

Last year the Alcohol Advisory Council (ALAC) commissioned Brian Easton to report on the impact of excise tax on alcohol. A central finding was that alcohol is one of a handful of products where the costs of production do not accurately reflect the overall costs to society of consumption.

"The excess social costs are substantial," states Easton. "The most comprehensive estimate suggests that alcohol misuse reduces effective GDP by 4 percent, may well reduce the effective size of the unmeasured (informal) economy by a similar amount, and has also reduced the welfare of New Zealanders via additional mortality and morbidity by 2 percent and the population of New Zealand by 0.8 percent.

"The excess social costs may be thought of as the economists’ equivalent of harm, in which case the objective of alcohol policy in economic terms is to reduce social costs. Reducing the gap between the prices on which individuals base their alcohol consumption decisions and the social cost to the economy will reduce harm, because individuals are less likely to partake of potentially harmful consumption."

Higher prices for alcohol are considered to impact on different consumers in different ways. While evidence suggests such moves have negligible influence on moderate, heavy and chronic drinkers, teenagers tend to reduce their drinking in the face of higher prices.

"It seems likely that there is less drinking in extended drinking sessions as the price rises," reports Easton.

Fair enough, one might conclude. So what’s got so many in the hospitality and liquor industries gagging then?

Quite simply, they are furious with the "haste and secrecy" surrounding the law change, and are questioning the Government’s social conscience in light of what they say is a fundamentally flawed notion. They are also critical that the move is as watered-down as the products the legislation is supposed to target - nothing more than another tax grab dressed up for public consumption.

While the Alcohol Advisory Committee-commissioned report places a clear emphasis on the social costs of alcohol, it is acknowledged that any measure of the toll the youth bracket imparts on the economy would be far from objective – it’s simply too tough to accurately calculate. If anything, health advocates argue that alcohol consumption should be reduced across the board, not forced upon any one group. The hospitality industry agrees.

"In many ways that’s what light spirits achieve by providing a lower alcohol spirit option," says Hospitality Association Chief Executive Bruce Robertson. "Light spirits provide an option for spirit drinkers to reduce their alcohol intake in the same way that low alcohol beers do for beer drinkers."

Calculating excise can be quite a complex business. Prior to Anderton’s changes, there were seven steps on the scale, depending on the beverage’s alcohol content. In the report, a graph of alcohol content against tax per litre shows a clear drop at the 23 percent mark – a point where the Government decided kids were getting "the best bang for their buck".

"The Bill puts into effect the recommendation in the Easton report relating to the excise duty on light spirits," explains Anderton in a statement released after the new law had been passed. "The change means that alcoholic beverages in the 14 to 23 percent alcohol range can be taxed according to their actual alcohol content, rather than all being levied as though they contain 18 percent alcohol by volume. The changes also mean that the products will be taxed at the higher rate – the same rate that full-strength spirits are taxed at. This will remove the tax advantage that the light spirits currently receive."

However, among other recommendations, Easton’s report suggests a decrease in the tax on higher alcohol spirits and yet the Government has chosen not to implement that. It’s this "selective" reckoning that has inspired talk of a tax grab.

Robertson acknowledges that the tax regime for alcohol is far from perfect and lacking in logic, but he says the Government has reached "new levels of absurdity" with this latest move.

In an article for Food and Beverage magazine Robertson highlights two key influences which, when combined, formed the trigger for the tax hike.

"The first was the formation, following the last election, of a Ministerial Taskforce on drugs and alcohol lead by Progressive Coalition Leader Jim Anderton…This taskforce has therefore been looking as to how they can and can be seen to be making progress to reduce problems associated with young people and alcohol and drugs.

"The other player has been the distilled spirits industry dominated by the overseas brand owners who have been perturbed to see the erosion of their market from ‘ready to drinks’ [RTDs] and the emergence of a light spirits category…one of their strategic objectives has been to remove or significantly dent the light spirits category. So it seems that submissions from this sector to ALAC have argued that as an effective harm minimisation measure light spirits should be taxed at a higher rate.

"The only real winners from these tax changes are the Government with greater revenue and the international full strength brand owners anticipating greater sales. The losers are all those involved in producing products between 14 and 23 percent, and in particular the consumers who enjoyed these products."

Figures suggest that revenue from excise duty on alcohol does not even cover the costs incurred by the public health sector in dealing with alcohol associated injuries and harm. Does that mean Robertson and others have a point when they suggest the new regime is merely a scheme to line government coffers? Probably not – on current consumption levels the new duty will only net treasury about $18 million. And if Anderton’s prediction is correct, an associated decrease in the drinking of light spirits will result in even less revenue being generated. He repeats that the aim is to reduce young drinkers’ demand for these alcoholic beverages.

"This will mean that young people will not be able to afford as much alcohol as they currently do. Their $10 pocket money won’t be able to buy them a bottle of gin. They’ll drink less alcohol, get less drunk, and cause less harm."

But caught in the crossfire are the producers and consumers of wine-based products – such as sherry and port. While distilled spirits, particularly light spirits, can be produced at low cost, the same cannot be said of fortified wines. Unfortunately for the latter, they fall within the magic 14 to 23 percent alcohol range and are now subject to the same excise duty.

Many small winemakers have made considerable investments in sherry and port production and because these types of wine typically need time to mature, wineries have substantial stocks on hand.

New Zealand Winegrowers, the industry body for the country’s winemakers and grape growers, says the change in the excise regime will have a striking impact in the market, making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for winemakers to sell the stock they have on hand.

"The financial impact of this could be disastrous, especially for smaller companies," says Chairman Peter Hubscher.

Henderson-based Pleasant Valley Wines, the oldest family-owned winery in New Zealand, has been making port and sherry for over 100 years. Owner Stephan Yelas says that while the company has just celebrated a milestone in terms of its centenary, it is the end of an era because they are pulling the plug on fortified wine production.

"We’ll just run stocks out now because we can’t see any money left in it. There’s no margin for profit any longer," he says.

New Zealand makes 1.2 million litres of port and sherry each year. While that only amounts to about 2 percent of the country’s total wine production, a string of family businesses in the Henderson area, many of which have been established for a long period of time, base their income on fortified wines.

Pleasant Valley will survive through the sale of its mainstay table wines, but Yelas agrees with Hubscher that other companies in the region, particularly the boutique wineries that focus primarily on port and sherry production, are likely to find the new excise duty very tough for business.

Yelas says he found out about the new excise duty like everyone else - "on the news." So was he annoyed when he heard? He says not as angry as the customers, who it turns out are "100 percent the older pensioners".

Indeed, the biggest market for sherry and port in New Zealand is the older generation. And that is why many critics say the new legislation simply defies logic, given that it is supposed to target youth drinking. One cynical commentator wrote that it is rather like attacking the high teenage pregnancy rate by taxing Viagra, or restricting boy racers by increasing the duty on diesel.

Hubscher says the elderly are bound to find the price increase of approximately $5 to $6 per bottle very hard to swallow, especially since most of them are on fixed incomes.

"This inflicts unnecessary hardship on people who have been contributing to our country for many decades and who are not part of the problem the new law purports to address," he says.

One suggestion in the Easton report states: "In order to maintain realistic minimum levels for the price of alcohol, either the base excise duty rate for all alcohol has to be raised, or a differential between spirits needs to be introduced. This reports recommends the latter option."

Winegrowers CEO Philip Gregan says essentially this proposes that light spirits should be taxed higher than other alcoholic beverages that fall within the 14 to 23 percent alcohol range. He says this would have made more sense than the adopted approach.

"There’s a fundamental difference between fermented beverages and distilled beverages," says Gregan. "That’s been recognised in past excise regimes. To be consistent, that logic needed to be carried through here. They haven’t though and by incorporating fortified wines they’ve blurred the line between distilled and fermented beverages."

Anderton’s rationale is that "this is necessary to ensure that these products [fortified wines] do not become an alternative source of low-priced, higher alcohol content beverages…"

Gregan thinks that is absurd. "Kids don’t drink fortified wines. The whole marketing profile and flavour profile is wrong."

And this isn’t the only reason Winegrowers is disgruntled. While the Government claims to have pushed the Bill through Parliament under such urgency so as to prevent one company gaining an unfair advantage over its competitor, Hubscher says the complete lack of discussion was a clear breach of a promise made by Anderton three months earlier.

"To make matters worse, this ill-conceived policy was rushed through without consultation – consultation the industry was promised in writing on more than one occasion by Jim Anderton in February of this year. It is a serious injustice that this promise was not kept," says Hubscher.

Investigate asked Winegrowers for a copy of Anderton’s letters but the request was declined on the basis that "it’s not in the public domain". However, we did find the following excerpt on Winegrowers’ website in which Anderton advises: "If we are to find the solutions to the problems we are exploring then it is crucial that these should be ones upon which as many as possible of the stakeholders can reach agreement. If we don’t take this approach then I doubt that we will succeed in our endeavours."

It is important to note that while the Government has adopted approaches outlined in his report, calling Easton the villain, as some commentators have alluded to, may not be the most objective reaction. Featured in the paper are recommendations and examples to "assist public discussion". In fact, he highlights it as an imperative.

"That it is a political judgement suggests the need for a wide public debate on the appropriate excise duty rate," writes Easton.

But since Anderton’s February correspondence, Winegrowers says it has had no consultation with the Government about the matter.

"We are fully supportive of the Government’s commitment to resolve the issue of excessive drinking by young people," says Hubscher. "We also agree with Mr Anderton’s letter that consultation with stakeholders is central to successful policy outcomes. Like him, we believe that the new regime will fail in its objectives because he has not taken key stakeholders with him on this issue.

"The policy will put some small winemakers out of business. It will make no contribution to solving the youth drinking problem."

By using less juice or less soft drink in the mix, young drinkers will get much the same effect as before, says Hubscher, and he predicts that the producers of light spirits will simply change their products to have 13.9 percent alcohol to bypass the new rules.

Independent Liquor, New Zealand’s largest light spirits producer, has done exactly that. It has reformulated its range of drinks to have an alcohol content of 13.9 percent in a move reported to have been "unashamedly aimed at beating" the teen-tax.

And if concern about the social impact of youth drinking is the real issue, why has the Government not attacked teenagers’ "drink of preference" – the sickly-sweet, brightly coloured, lolly-water beverages referred to as alco-pops or RTDs?

"Light spirits are of greater concern at the moment than alco-pops as the price of light spirits currently allows young people to purchase a greater quantity of alcohol for a less amount of money," is Anderton’s reply.

There’s a clear consensus, spoken on talkback radio and voiced in the odd editorial – the new tax will prompt a short-term reduction in youth binge drinking but it is not a long-term solution.

"Government should be addressing the question ‘why do young people or indeed any New Zealanders binge drink?’" says Robertson. "Instead they have a simplistic view that the price they pay for alcohol is their major driver to binge and it will be fixed by increasing the price, and that’s simply not the case."

Groups opposing liquor advertising aimed at young people report that it is the commercials that have lead to more teen binge drinking. Given that the Herald recently revealed that liquor companies received "mate’s rates" from government-owned Television New Zealand, to encourage intense advertising, it is hardly surprising that people are struggling to understand the logic behind the latest move.

Robertson is one of many who argue that the Government would be concentrating on more fundamental questions if social interest was the priority. Others see it as a little contradictory that a ‘conscience vote’ in Parliament led to the lowering of the drinking age in the first place, and some say the lack of consultation was a flouting of the democratic process.

However, it is hard to argue with the underlying principle, or indeed the statistics, that teenage binge drinking is a serious concern, not just for the healthy development of that cohort, but also for society as whole. And yet, it is an issue that most agree necessitates action that actually hits the mark - a more measured response than the impromptu measures carried through a sleepy Parliament that night. Instead, says Robertson, "Government has used a sledge hammer and missed the target."

Posted by Ian Wishart at 01:04 AM | Comments (0)

January 29, 2007

The Case for ADHD: Jan 07 issue


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? “ 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 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: . 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.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 12:28 AM | Comments (0)