L’il Al in ‘Nam
Just when you’re beginning to feel sorry for Al Gore, with all the people piling on him day and night, Donna Brazile, Gore’s campaign manager, has to shoot off her mouth. Asked about Bill Bradley’s New York fundraiser last Sunday with basketball legends, she declared, “Al Gore doesn’t need a one-time show at Madison Square Garden where you get to dribble with old-time greats.” Gore, she added, “is running a marathon.”
Which brings to mind the story about L’il Al’s combat tour in Vietnam. Last week it was revealed that, unlike Bradley, who served briefly in the National Guard, and George W. Bush, a poster boy for the Texas Air National Guard, Gore refused Guard duty because it wouldn’t look right. “I couldn’t have done that,” Gore said. “I thought about that, and because a lot of those decisions were made with political influence, I could have done that, but it did not feel right.” So he went to Vietnam, where he has implied he was battle-hardened. “I was shot at. I spent most of my time in the field,” he told reporters 11 years ago. “I carried an M16 . . . I pulled my turn on the perimeter at night and walked through the elephant grass and I was fired upon,” Gore said. “Something would move, we’d fire first and ask questions later.”
But eight Vietnam vets who served with the vice president now claim that Gore was never in the middle of a battle and that his unit was supposed to keep him safe because he was a senator’s son. “Alan Leo said soldiers were ordered to serve as Gore’s bodyguards, to keep him out of harm’s way,” a Los Angeles Times story reports. ” ‘It blew me away,’ Leo said. ‘I was to make sure he didn’t get into a situation he could not get out of.’ ” Leo said Gore’s bodyguards would take him into the field when combat was over so he didn’t get messed up. Later, Gore worked as a PR man in the army.
Self-Medicating With TV
The cost of prescription drugs is outrageous, in part due to monopoly patenting rules, and in part the result of a shrewd industry maneuver aimed at beating out generic drugs, which were meant to hold the line against more expensive brand names. Instead, the pharmaceutical companies have charmed their way past the FDA and successfully persuaded the American public to medicate itself-so that when people see an ad for an appealing pill they pressure the doctor into prescribing it.
Pharmaceutical manufacturers sell more than $81 billion in medicines annually, more than double the level in 1990. In terms of advertising, the industry is the 13th largest in the nation. Traditionally, these big firms aimed their advertising dollars at doctors and other professionals through medical journals, to persuade them to prescribe a given brand name medicine. But recently, with consumers dishing out $32 billion a year in out-of-pocket expenditures, this advertising has taken a shift in direction-with the compliance of the FDA, the companies now are spending more to win over consumers through TV or popular magazines in the hopes they will persuade or pressure their doctors to prescribe them medicine by brand name. And the advertising works. In a 1998 study by Prevention Magazine, 54 million people said that they talked to a doctor about a drug after seeing it advertised, and 22 million talked to their doctors about a condition for the first time after seeing a possible treatment advertised.
Those in favor of direct-to-consumer advertising argue that it allows the drug company to soft-sell medicine while educating the public about a disease, and overall gives consumers what they are always asking for: more info about diseases and drugs, thereby empowering them to make better consumer choices. “This is not advertising,” said the director of public affairs at Pharmacia & Upjohn. “This is a health education campaign aimed at encouraging patients to seek the health they need.”
The U.S. remains the only nation where pharmaceutical firms are allowed to engage in direct-to-consumer advertising. Since the FDA set rules in 1997, ad expenditures have taken off, reaching $1.53 billion for the 12 months ending in March 1999, a rise of 16 percent over the previous year. Total promotional spending directed toward physicians and consumers by the drug companies totaled $6.14 billion through March. Drugs for chronic conditions-like Prozac for depression or Prilosec for acid reflux-are especially suitable for direct marketing.
TV advertising carries an added plus, from the industry’s point of view. In print advertising, the companies must list all the possible side effects, contraindications, and effectiveness. But on television they can mention health benefits and list only the major side effects.
Drug War on Latinos
The Senate last week snuck an amendment into a bankruptcy bill that drastically raises the federal penalties faced by people using powder cocaine. As it stands, current penalties invoke a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for sale of 500 grams of powder cocaine and a 10-year sentence for sale of 5000 grams. The amendment, sponsored by Michigan’s Republican conservative Spencer Abraham, passed on a 50-49 margin, and would reduce these amounts to 50 grams and 500 grams respectively. The amendment now goes to the House.
The purported rationale represents an effort to deal with the disparity in sentences between crack and powder cocaine. The five-year mandatory minimum sentence is triggered for sale of 500 grams of powder cocaine, but for possession or sale of just five grams of crack cocaine. Eighty-five percent of crack defendants are black.
In fact, the situation is more complicated. As the U.S. Sentencing Commission points out, the existing penalties for powder cocaine are “severe,” and “there have been few if any complaints about the leniency of these guidelines.” Marc Maurer of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit Washington group, says that while 31 percent of powder cocaine defendants in 1998 were black, nearly half of the remaining 69 percent were Hispanic. “Thus, four out of five-80 percent-of all federal powder cocaine defendants are minorities.” Applying the most conservative estimates that are based on the current racial-ethnic distribution of defendants, Maurer believes applying the new amendment “would send to jail 2100 Hispanics, 1300 African Americans, and 800 non-Hispanic whites.”
Legislating harsher penalties has little effect on cocaine use, which has increased from 190 metric tons in 1980 to 284 tons a decade later-despite a 649 percent rise in the number of drug offenders sent to jail. The 581,000 drug arrests in 1980 rose to 1.4 million in 1995, while the number of people using drugs declined (from 14.1 percent in 1979 to 6.1 percent in 1995). More than three quarters of the people using drugs were white, but about a third of those arrested were black.
The Cold War may be long gone, but the security apparatus set up to protect us from Commies has become established as a special class of citizen and remains an incredible albatross around the federal government’s neck, untouched by Gore’s “reinventing government” process.
According to a recent General Accounting Office report, 524,000 military, civilian, and contractor employees hold top-secret clearances, granting them access to the inner recesses of the federal government. Another 1.8 million hold secret clearances. The government convicted 80 federal employees and contractor personnel of espionage-endangering national security through actual spying-between 1982 and September 1999. According to the report, “Hundreds of other potential instances have been detected,” and the Defense Department is “vulnerable to espionage.”
From a neo-Nazi Web site: “It’s time to begin thinking about how we racists are going to party at 12:00 January 1, 2000. Pigs will be spread pretty thin. So many people will be shooting firearms in the air that one pointed horizontally won’t alert too much attention. Will niggers and spics tear up Sout’ Central again? Where will most Jews be at the stroke of midnight? And is there enough ‘national security?’ to protect every one of the ZOG’s precious, loyal sheeple? Please send your ideas… about arranging this party of ours.”
Additional reporting: Kate Cortesi