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Jewish World Review August 19, 2002/ 11 Elul, 5762

Suzanne Fields

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Prescription drugs to have and to have not | "Welcome to the information age. Data, data everywhere, but no one knows a thing." - Roger Kimball, The New Criterion

The parody of the Ancient Mariner's famous lament, when, frizzled, with parched throat and riding a silent sea of salt, he cries out: "Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink," is the perfect analogy. With data everywhere, we imagine that we're satisfying a thirst for information with the click of a mouse or the tiny pressure exerted on a television remote.

But much of what we get are flickering mirages, at the mercy of those who hold the microphone or write on the microchip. We not only lack the ability to evaluate or analyze what we see and hear, but news, entertainment and even advertising are mingled (and mangled) for deceptive purposes.

Roger Kimball is talking about the nature of communication today, with its high-speed Internet access that magnifies the opportunities for obtaining information, but with none of the commensurate abilities to interpret or criticize what's offered. We've become victims of the visual images of television that give the illusion of men and women talking "facts" when they're merely selling opinions and spouting propaganda. We become victims of a mental virus whose symptoms are masked by the medium when it becomes the message.

Take, for example, the most recent scam of the pharmaceutical manufacturers. They're paying celebrities to hype brand-name medications by including their brand names as part of the intimate details in personal interviews, mixing the details of their aches and pains - or the maladies of their best friends - and how they treat them with the details of the glamorous life of fame and fortune.

Lauren Bacall, who as a young actress opened the eyes of Humphrey Bogart with instructions on how to whistle ("you just put your lips together and blow") in the movie "To Have and Have Not," now instructs television audiences how to treat an eye disease. When Matt Lauer interviewed her on NBC's "Today" show, she told of a friend who had gone blind and mentioned the brand name of a drug for the specific disorder called macular degeneration.

"In the last year or so, dozens of celebrities, from Ms. Bacall to Kathleen Turner to Rob Lowe, have been paid hefty fees to appear on television talk shows and morning news programs and to disclose intimate details of ailments that afflict them or people close to them," reports the New York Times. "Often they mention brand-name drugs without disclosing their financial ties to the medicine's maker."

They don't discuss the side affects or adverse problems posed by the drugs, which federal regulations mandate in what is more strictly called advertising. While we can sometimes sympathize with the pharmaceutical companies' explanation that costly research means expensive remedies, how willing are we to pay more because an aging actress earns a fat income talking about it on the tube, and without an acknowledgement that she's getting paid for shill duty?

As fictional programs dramatize the upstairs and downstairs life in a hospital, from the emergency room to intensive care, drug companies have to be tempted to push for images of their products. It can mislead a public that gets much of its medical information unfiltered from fiction. "E.R.," for example, has an audience of 22 million viewers per episode; Tom Brokaw's nightly newscast has an audience of 10.8 million.

One episode of "Chicago Hope," the CBS medical drama, enraged the La Leche League International, a breast-feeding advocacy group, which characterized it as overkill, literally and figuratively. The episode featured a mother who had too little breast milk to nurse her baby, and was portrayed as a bad mother because she refused to give her dying baby a bottle of formula substitute. That's fair enough as a plot device, but La Leche noted the coincidence that a pharmaceutical trade group sponsors both "Chicago Hope" and a medical news program that followed it. A certain member company of the pharmaceutical trade group is the biggest manufacturer of baby formula.

Something to think about. But if you don't feel like thinking about it on a muggy, late-summer day, you could turn up the air conditioner, slip in a video of "To Have and Have Not" and take instruction on how to whistle. You'll see a fetching Lauren Bacall who had no reason to hide her real message.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS