Really Strange Bedfellows: The Odd Alliance Promoting Drug Re-Importation
by Edmund F. Haislmaier
"Politics makes for strange bedfellows," goes the old adage. But sometimes the bedfellows aren't just a little strange. Sometimes they're... um... ah... well... really strange.
Consider the case of Congressman Gil Gutknecht.
He's a solid conservative Republican - pro-free-market, against big government, pro-life, etc. But his constituents back in Minnesota think that they shouldn't have to pay more for prescription drugs than the folks in Canada. Now, the reason drugs are cheaper in Canada is simple - its government puts price controls on drugs. Well, the congressman thinks he has the answer. He's sponsored legislation to let wholesalers and pharmacists buy drugs in Canada and other countries where government price controls make them cheaper, and then import them into the U.S.
Now, let's skip the fact that, the last time I checked, importing other countries' government regulations isn't exactly a tenant of free market conservatism. Let's also leave aside the boring arguments about how drug price controls make drug companies less eager to invest in discovering new drugs, or for that matter, the wisdom - post-9/11 - of letting a bunch of middlemen start importing drugs into the U.S. with less regulatory oversight. No, let's just stick to the bedfellows question.
Like me, maybe you've heard politicians on the other side of the issue branded by critics as "in the pocket of the drug makers," with any connection - contributions, speeches, reliance on industry data - cited as evidence for those assertions.
OK then, let's turn the tables. Just who is Congressman Gutknecht in bed with on this issue? Well, according to The Hill, an independent bi-weekly newspaper that covers the minutia of Congress, Gutknecht's source for data and arguments on this issue is an outfit called the "Life Extension Foundation" (LEF).1 By The Hill's count, "In 22 references over the last three years - including five times last month - the five-term lawmaker used the foundation to bolster his charges."
Now, what LEF does is sell a wide range of vitamins and supplements and use the proceeds to fund anti-aging research. But, according to The Hill, LEF also offers through its web site and publications all sorts of questionable health advice, advocates the use of prescription drugs for unproven and unapproved uses and encourages people to buy from foreign sources drugs that haven't been approved for use in the U.S.
The article notes that, "The FDA has raided the group's offices several times in the past 20 years, and a host of charges have been leveled against its directors, including the unlawful importation, sale and dispensing of unapproved drugs. Although its directors were indicted in Florida in 1991, the charges were dropped by the U.S. Attorney in 1996. For its part, LEF has spared no effort to denigrate the FDA."
Tufts University's School of Nutrition and Science Policy reviews and rates the content of over 100 nutrition-related web sites. Their last review of LEF's site, posted March 5, had this to say, "Their recommendations range from premature to dangerous. Some of the information on this site is valid preliminary research presented prematurely as a 'treatment protocol.' Some of it is dangerous - such as the advice to women with breast cancer to take up to 300,000 IUs of Vitamin A each day, an amount that far exceeds the upper limit of safety. Vitamin A can be toxic. Many of the statements on this site all share a common characteristic - they don't qualify as sound advice. For this reason, the LEF site makes our 'Not Recommended' list."2
As summed up by a drug industry representative quoted in The Hill story, "These guys are the poster-child for why Gutknecht's proposals are exactly the wrong idea."
LEF also supports therapeutic human cloning and human embryo stem cell research and lobbied against legislation to ban those practices, which The Hill noted is, "a major no-no for those opposed to abortion," such as Congressman Gutknecht.3
And then there is LEF's founder and director, Saul Kent, who is also a director of "Alcor Life Extension Foundation."4 They're in the business of "cryonics," or deep freezing the bodies (or, just the heads) of deceased members in the belief that science will some day be able to revive them (and grow new bodies for the decapitated). Back in 1987, Kent had his own mother, then in her eighties, removed from her nursing home and taken to LEF where she died. Surgeons then removed and froze her head. But they didn't get a death certificate first. So there were arrests and a murder investigation, which was dropped after a judge refused investigators' request to autopsy Mrs. Kent's head.
As I said, really strange bedfellows.
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Edmund F. Haislmaier is a board member of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank. Comments may be sent to email@example.com.
1 Sam Dealey, "Gutknecht's Body of Research Turns Heads," The Hill, June 4, 2003, available at http://www.hillnews.com/news/060403/gutknecht.aspx as of June 2, 2003.
2 "Life Extension Foundation," Nutrition Navigator: A Rating Guide to Nutrition Websites, Gerald J. & Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University, Boston, Massachusetts, available at http://navigator.tufts.edu/special/sites/250.html as of June 25, 2003.
3 See, for example: Saul Kent, "Don't Let The U.S. Government Ban Therapeutic Cloning," Life Extension magazine, March 2002, available at http://www.lef.org/magazine/mag2002/mar2002_report_cloning_01.html as of June 25, 2003; "Urge Senators To Oppose Bill To Ban Human Cloning," Life Extension magazine, March 2002, available at http://www.lef.org/magazine/mag2002/mar2002_report_oppose_01.html as of June 23, 2003; "Stop the 'Temporary Moratorium' on Therapeutic Cloning," Life Extension Foundation, Hollywood, Florida, July 16, 2002, available at
http://www.lef.org/magazine/mag2002/mar2002_report_oppose_01_update.html as of June 25, 2003; "May 8th Call Your Senators," Life Extension Foundation, Hollywood, Florida, May 7, 2002, available at http://www.lef.org/magazine/mag2002/mar2002_report_oppose_02_update.html as of June 25, 2003; "Senate Vote on Bill to Ban Human Cloning Expected in May," Life Extension Foundation, Hollywood, Florida, April 23, 2002, available at http://www.lef.org/magazine/mag2002/mar2002_report_oppose_03_update.html as of June 25, 2003 and "Davis OKs Stem Cell Research California is First State to Encourage Studies," Life Extension Foundation, Hollywood, Florida, September 24, 2002, available at http://www.lef.org/magazine/mag2002/mar2002_report_oppose_05_update.html as of June 25, 2003.
4 "Alcor Staff," Alcor Life Extension Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona, available at http://www.alcor.org/AboutAlcor/alcorStaff.htm as of June 25, 2003.