An Epidemic of Gun Violence

Last week I wrote about the 1st Amendment. This week I’m going to talk about the 2nd. There is an epidemic of gun violence. This is a serious health problem. Watching your diet, exercising, and taking pills is all for naught if a bullet kills you.

In Newtown, Connecticut, one of the worst mass shooting occurred last week when a gunman shot his mother at home, apparently with her own gun, then walked into an elementary school and shot 6 other adults and 20 children, before shooting himself. Gun rights are hotly debated and highly politicized, but gun violence is a serious health issue. The National Rifle Association (NRA) and others have been strong proponents of gun rights, and have fought hard to fight off attempts for even the slightest form of control, including restrictions on semi-automatic and assault weapons.

One of their arguments is that citizens can protect themselves with guns, and that concealed guns are a particularly effective deterrent because potential assailants won’t know who may be armed. But in 61 cased in the US in the past 30 years, maybe only one was stopped by a gun other than their own, or by the police. Even if people want guns to protect themselves, they shouldn’t need to cover the contingency of an invading army, so I see no need for high capacity bullet magazines.

Many mass shooters have mental illness and we need to do a better job providing access to mental health treatments. Some illnesses, such as schizophrenia, often don’t really manifest until people are in their teens or early 20’s, allowing them to purchase guns when their sick enough to do real damage, but not so severe that they would have more trouble planning an attack or convincing someone to sell them a gun. Even if not mentally ill, young men tend to act less rashly as they get older, and are more likely to consider the consequences of their actions. From a list of 22 of the deadliest mass shootings around the world, 65% of them were under 30. We already have a law that says that people can’t buy alcohol until they are 21-years-old, even though they can vote and serve in the military at 18-years-old. Perhaps the right to own a gun should only be allowed for those who are at least 30-years-old.

We need to close legal loopholes, such as sales between private buyers, that allow people to avoid background checks before purchasing guns. I need to fill out more paperwork to prescribe shoes for a diabetic than to buy an assault weapon. We need people to speak up and let our politicians know that gun violence caused by guns is not acceptable. We’ll never prevent all such tragedies, but we should try to minimize the possibility as best we can.

Off Label Drugs and Free Speech

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has ruled that pharmaceutical companies cannot promote drugs for purposes other than the reasons for which the drug was approved. Physicians are free to do such off-label prescribing, however the drug companies cannot suggest in any way that physicians and other prescribers do so.

Companies have to do expensive studies to show that a medication is both safe and effective. How the FDA approves the drug is based on the research the company did. For example, Neurontin (gabapentin) is approved for certain kinds of seizures, post-herpetic neuralgia, and neuropathic pain. In 2004 Warner-Lambert paid $430 million in a court case brought by the government for off label use. The pharmaceutical company sales representatives had, promoted it for conditions including bipolar mental disorder, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, attention deficit disorder, migraine, and other conditions.

Some of those claims were true, and the company later received the nerve pain indications that it didn’t originally have. Physicians may rightly prescribe the medication without it having an indication because they have reasons to believe it may work based on the pharmacology or published studies. The pharmaceutical company may just not have been able to get it approved yet, or if it’s not a common problem, they may decide that financially it’s not worth the cost of getting an indication.

When a physician prescribes a medication, there is usually no direct economic benefit to them, and whether they are right or wrong, they will prescribe a medicine because they think it will benefit the patient. That’s not necessarily true of pharmaceutical companies, though. They have a direct economic incentive to sell as much of their product as possible, and their sales reps are often compensated on how many prescriptions the doctors they call on write. So although many of the reps are ethical, economic pressures are a strong incentive to get them to push for off label uses. Multi-million dollar settlements help hold those pressures in check.

Recently a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, in a case involving pharmaceutical sales rep Alfred Caronia, ruled that the FDA regulations violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. In an editorial the Wall Street Journal sided with the court, saying that, “health regulation is by nature health coercion.”

The Wall Street may smack down anything at all related to the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare), but I think they are wrong. I’m not a lawyer, and much less a constitutional one, but I think of free speech in a different way. I don’t think selling a product is free speech. Selling an idea is. If you are not allowed to put up a sign touting you believe or don’t believe in God, for example, then your right to express your opinion is being abridged. If, however, you put up a sign saying the price of gasoline at your station, that’s not stating what you believe in, that’s just advertising. Granted, some cases might be fuzzy and I would err on the side of free speech, but sales reps talking about their medications are usually just advertizing. In fact the FDA does allow companies to support off label use, but it’s strictly limited (done by a physician in response to questions, etc.).

The Supreme Court acted in a similar manner in 2010 when they removed some limitations to political causes, allowing unlimited donations. This led to over a billion dollars donated in the last presidential cycle. It was done in the name of free speech, but because they could blanket the airwaves with ads, I’d argue those with less money basically lost some of their free speech to rich donors.

A lot of taxpayer money is spent on prescription medications. Busy physicians don’t have time to fact check every thing pharmaceutical sales reps tell them. Allowing reps to say whatever they want, in the name of free speech, is not good for anyone’s health, other than perhaps that of the pharmaceutical companies.

Aspirin – Coated or Naked – Does it Matter?

Aspirin is often used to prevent heart attacks and strokes. Patients usually take an 81 mg (baby aspirin) or 325 mg (regular strength) pill. It also comes in plain, enteric coated, or buffered. Enteric coated aspirin is often recommended to decrease the risk of ulcers, the idea being that it doesn’t dissolve until it gets past the stomach, though there is limited evidence that it really makes a difference.

Another concern over the past decade is that some patients may be resistant to aspirin, and perhaps needed to be on more expensive medications, such as Plavix (clopidogrel), which recently went generic, though is still pricier than aspirin.

Now a new study from the University of Pennsylvania, published in the magazine Circulation, questioned the idea of aspirin resistance, and said that some patients who did not respond to the coated aspirin did respond to plain aspirin. But that does not mean you should conclude that taking coated aspirin may put you at increased risk for a heart attack.

This study looked at 400 health volunteers and gave them a single 325 mg dose of aspirin, either plain or coated, and measured the chemical cyclooxygenase-1 to see if it worked. If they appeared “resistant” then they gave one week each of coated 81 mg aspirin and clopidogrel. Although 49% of the volunteers did not respond to the single aspirin, they all responded to the daily dosing.

So the bottom line is if you take a coated aspirin every day, you probably don’t need to be concerned about it not working. If you don’t regularly take aspirin, but experience chest pain, after you call 911, take a plain aspirin, and preferably chew it to speed absorption. If you only have coated aspirin, it should work just as well if you chew it. Coated aspirin, made by Bayer and other manufacturers, are a little more expensive than plain aspirin, but are still fairly inexpensive.