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Money Makes Government Health Policy

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I’m not a conspiracy theorist by nature. I don’t buy into vast governmental intrigues designed to undermine our health or conceal UFO invasions. That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m naïve, and that I don’t understand how much influence money has on government decisions.

In an attempt to raise the nation’s historically low rate of breast-feeding, federal health officials commissioned an attention-grabbing advertising campaign to convince mothers that breast feeding was good and that formula feeding posed significant health risks. The ads featured photos of insulin syringes and asthma inhalers topped with rubber nipples. But those ads never went very far. Why?

In a story released just one week ago in the Washington Post, Clayton Yeutter (a former chairman of the Republican National Committee) and Joseph A. Levitt (who had until several months earlier directed the FDA’s division that regulates infant formula) were hired to intervene with the HHS and defuse the ads.

The net result is that although the intervention did not block the ads, it decidedly changed their direction. Instead of the hard hitting ads originally developed, we saw ads that used images of dandelions and ice-cream sodas to promote the virtues of breastfeeding. But gone were any images or languaging that focused on the dangers of formula feeding. In a February 2004 letter (pdf) to the HHS, the lobbyists thanked them for stopping health officials from “scaring expectant mothers into breast-feeding,” and asked for help in scaling back more of the ads.

This, of course, is not the first time we’ve seen health policy distorted by intense lobbying. Perhaps the most classic example is the total redesign and distortion of the USDA’s food pyramid to reflect the lobbying interests of the National Dairy Council, the Soft Drink Association, the American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and the Wheat Foods Council.

Another example is President Bush’s refusal to ban the use of the mercury based preservative, Thimerosal, from children’s flu vaccines as he promised he would do during his 2004 campaign. I know it’s probably just a coincidence that George Jr.’s father, the former President Bush, is a one-time member of the Eli Lilly board of directors.

Bottom line: Your government, whichever one it is, is not necessarily putting your health interests first when determining government health policy.