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China’s Looming Health Crisis



 Better health would undermine GNP.

I can see it coming. Prime Minister Li Keqiang will work with Western pharmaceutical companies and food manufacturers to mitigate declining economic growth. My heart goes out to the Chinese people. 

Actually my heart has been going out to them for a long time for many reasons, and I recently heard about another. A young woman returning from a visit with her family said that people in the United States don’t understand how much anxiety the Chinese live with daily over the quality of the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the food they eat. 

Perhaps the demand for antidepressants is a big factor in booming drug sales there. International pharmaceutical companies would like to become big players in that market, especially since so many patents have begun to expire. The problem is that China is also accelerating its own drug production, which will focus on domestic sales. There probably won’t be much demand outside of China, because no one will trust what’s actually in the pills. 

Although I can see collaboration coming, China will be inclined to guard its turf in the beginning. In fact it just recently took on the giant British drug manufacturer, GlaxoSmithKline. We all know that the Chinese government is very much against bribery and other forms of corruption, and it has accused Glaxo of funneling almost $500 million to doctors, hospitals, and government officials to increase sales.

The name GlaxoSmithKline may ring a bell because of recent controversy over its diabetes drug, Avandia. Independent research suggested that the drug increases the chance of heart attack among patients, which the company’s own trials should have revealed. Nevertheless the FDA cleared it in June after further review, saying basically, “Go ahead and prescribe it, but be careful.”  Hmm.

The question that may secretly be of interest to all drug manufacturers as well as the Chinese government is whether there are enough unwell and yet prosperous people in China to make everybody plenty of money. If not, what can be done to improve that situation? 

What I am anticipating is a large scale effort to alter the Chinese lifestyle to increase the demand for pharmaceuticals. After all, only 5% of Chinese are obese (as of 2009) compared to our 33% in the United States. If there is a wholesale push toward the Western diet, just think of all the money that will be made on medications for diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease! 

And what’s the key? Sugar. The Chinese have got to be encouraged to eat more sugar, and that could also involve American processed food manufacturers. They have learned how to put sugar in virtually everything, from mayonnaise to a can of vegetable soup, and it is addictive. The more you have, the more you want. I have personal knowledge of this, having only recently pulled my own sweet tooth. 

China does have some sugar cane production in the southern part of the country, so that would stimulate revenue, and they could help spread the sugar thing worldwide. That would be a great thing for the pharmaceutical industry. National Geographic has an article on sugar in this month’s issue called “Sugar Love” by Rich Cohen, and it gives an example of what I mean. 

Over recent decades, we have been led to believe that we could lower cholesterol, which has been tied to heart disease, by reducing the saturated fat in our diets. This we have done, but obesity has nevertheless increased. What we could do is cut way back on sugar consumption, which for reasons explained in the article, would reduce obesity and the risk of diabetes and heart attack. Apparently Americans consume on average almost 23 teaspoons of sugar a day, or 77 pounds per year. In 1800, the latter figure was about 18 pounds.

But let’s be frank. There’s a lot of money to be made from ill health, and it is so much easier to take medication than to change one’s lifestyle for the better. And here’s the win-win deal for the healthcare industry. A medication may seem miraculous in the way it relieves symptoms or clears up an infection in the frightening moment, but it may have side effects or even cause complications. This would involve more prescriptions and procedures. Hospitals, diagnostic centers, physicians, therapists—everybody benefits financially.  

Inspired by the potential for profit, the Chinese government will probably accelerate the move into the Western style of conventional medicine and enjoy more years of impressive economic growth as a result.  It is safe to assume that climbing GNP is far more important to the country than the health of its people. It will be sad to watch their deterioration, but maybe we will learn something important along the way. 

The fact is that there is not a lot of money to be made from good health in any capitalist society. In fact, better health would undermine GNP. On the other hand, it would save the individual and the government a lot of money. And once you think all this through, you come to yet another stunning conclusion: Good health really depends more than anything else on the initiative of the individual. There we have to leave it: All of us every day in so many ways will self-select for one state of being or the other. 

As for the Chinese and the plight with which I began, they are not so fortunate. No matter what they now do in pursuit of better health, the levels of air pollution the government has so far failed to address are daily foreshortening their lifespans.


2 Responses to “China’s Looming Health Crisis”

  1. Barbara McCarthy

    Ellen, you continue to amaze me with the extent of your interests and the information you gather, together with incredible writing skills which you share with all of us. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be informed or even aware of some of the topics you write about. Thank you! I am definitely forwarding this particular p[ece3 to my family. Barbara

    • celeryellen

      Thank you so much for your encouragement, Barbara. I am always honored.