Creating Medical Myths

Creating myths

History tells us that when money is involved the medical establishments will do anything to keep profits and power. Good examples of this include tobacco and alcohol. Most people may not remember but the various medical associations around the world have been prominent supporters of these deadly products in the pursuit of profit. All too often our memories are too short or we think the basic behaviours of people will change.

While evidence of the toxic effects of tobacco smoke has been around for hundreds of years, the correlation between tobacco and cancer was first officially reported in 1939 in a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It took until 1962 before any action was taken. However, even after being exposed, the tobacco industry has continued to survive and even thrive in some places. They even continue to produce evidence to show that tobacco smoke is not bad for you and fund medical and health journals to print these studies.

Prior to 1962, the American Cancer Society would admit only a possible link between smoking and lung cancer and was associated with many aspects of the tobacco industry including marketing products and trying to make a “safer cigarette.” The medical establishments including the AMA continued to back the tobacco industry even under an avalanche of evidence and ran prominent ads in their medical journals. The ACS, like governments around the world today, including state and federal here in Australia, have delayed tobacco controls that could have helped and could still help a lot of people. A prominent Australian premier repeatedly blocked tobacco control legislation in the early 2000s only to take a lucrative position as a director in a major tobacco company when he retired from politics. This political corruption was and still is rampant in all Western nations. I saw firsthand the delaying tactics of governments to introduce tobacco control legislation despite more than 50 years of good science and thousands of studies—even a couple of studies I did with my students.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture to this day continues to support tobacco growing and export to third world nations. This is the same organisation that gave us the food pyramid, which was created for the sole purpose of selling more grain products (at any expense) and classified pizza as a vegetable in 2012 so it could be sold to American schools.

We learnt from smoking. Stop smoking and you reduce mortality and morbidity. It was hard but we educated the public against the vested interests of the tobacco lobby and we started to really win the war on cancer.

Along with the forebears of modern medicine like Hippocrates and Galen, in 1676 Richard Wiseman, a prominent English surgeon, wrote that diet could promote cancer especially the consumption of alcohol and meat. Despite this knowledge hundreds and even thousands of years earlier, for the past three decades health and medical professionals have been promoting wine as a healthful drink based on no science whatsoever and going against more than 50 years of good science.

This myth was started when early studies showed that the highest consumer of saturated fat in Europe was the French but they also has the lowest death rate from cardiovascular disease with four per 100,000 for women and 22 per 100,000 for men. For years this was called the “French paradox,” which I’ll write more about in the chapter on saturated fats. In fact what it showed was that most of the countries in that region had high fat and low CVD so maybe fat was not linked with CVD. This did not fit the current medical myth, as fat and cholesterol were the number one enemies. So they made up a myth and said wine was good for you because the French drink more wine, despite 50 years of good science linking all forms of alcohol with mortality and morbidity. The myth also failed to mention the low-key and relaxed, low-stress lifestyle of the French, the long lunches and sipping on wine over a long meal talking with friends. There are so many factors to consider but wine was the simplest and most easily understood by the public and the most profitable. Very wrong but easily understood. Now, 30 years later the ads tell people that any alcohol is bad for you and we are supposed to ignore the 30 years of poor advice that spawned a generation of people justifying drinking more alcohol.

Similarly the Japanese are one of the longest-lived populations in the world despite their high rates of smoking and stress. They also eat a little bit of fermented soya bean in the form of tempeh and soya sauce. So in the manufacturing of another health myth, the food industry, which was already feeding vast amounts of soya to cattle, along with the medical industry, saw an opportunity to tell everyone to eat more soya products because they contain some “phyto estrogens” and because women in Asia have very low levels of breast cancer. Asian culture has a little bit of fermented soya along with lots of green vegetables and a large amount of fish and seafood including seaweed. Only now we are starting to wake up to the fact that soya milk and soya products are toxic to the body if they are not fermented. Not to mention all the chemicals in our Western lifestyle that mimic oestrogen and that are linked to breast and prostate cancers.

Once started, a myth is hard to break down especially with billions of dollars of funding behind it. But even people with the best intentions can get caught up in it. At one point everyone thought the world was flat and the sun rotated around it. If it were not for science and some very courageous people, some who lost their lives because of their convictions, we would still be thinking the same.

We continually hear about the miracle cure that is just around the corner. Every month a current affairs program introduces the next one. Ninety-nine percent go no further than an initial media blitz and at best one percent have a minimal, if any, effect. But it is an attempt by the drug industry and media to convince the public they need to put more money into research to find a cure—even when we already know how to prevent the illness and in many cases reverse the condition. Unfortunately none of these miracle drugs have ever come to fruition and billions of dollars are wasted, but even more unfortunate is that people don’t hear the real solutions such as healthy nutritious lifestyles.

The drug companies spend billions of dollars trying to convince people that they are sicker than they actually are and are very ill or have an illness that has only just been made up. They seem to be able to turn almost anything into a disease as long as there is a drug to treat it. Suddenly all the normal conditions we suffer and learn to get over are life-threatening illnesses that need to be medicated. We are literally creating diseases that we need to treat with drugs. In psychiatry the new manual, the “DSM-5,” labels practically every human emotion a mental disorder and all those modern disorders require treatment with high-profit pharmaceuticals. Recently they classified caffeine withdrawal, restless leg, and too much online activity each as a disease but not self-harm?

We have created illnesses out of normal conditions and require specialists to manipulate and control some of the most natural aspects of life, such as giving birth, ageing and menopause. Accepting them would be too simple. Better still, we can approach them by making healthy lifestyle and nutrition choices.