Evanston author takes on Big Food, Big Pharma
From editorial cartoonist and medical copywriter to a hardhitting observer and writer of drug and food issues, it's been quite a journey for Evanston author Martha Rosenberg. Her book contains some 70 pages of sourced notes. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 2, 2012 6:11AM
EVANSTON — For longtime Evanston resident Martha Rosenberg, it didn’t take the power of invention to make the switch from editorial cartoonist and medical copywriter to investigative health reporter.
She began writing about health and food issues in 2006, responding to news reports about the arthritis medicine Vioxx and hormone replacement therapy, or HRT.
“In the case of Vioxx, there were at least 38,000 heart attacks and strokes and maybe more, and some people said there were 50,000 deaths,” she said.
A 2002 federal study found that HRT doubled the risk of blood clots and increased the risk of breast cancer by 26 percent, heart attacks by 29 percent and strokes by 41 percent.
“I began to obsessively research this stuff and dig to discover how this had happened,’’ she said.
She said it became clear that millions of people were taking drugs that actually harmed them.
Her new book, “Born with a Junk Food Deficiency — How Flaks, Quacks, and Hacks Pimp the Public Health” from Prometheus Books, documents excessive and false marketing claims used by the pharmaceutical and food industries to influence the public.
Some six years in the making, Rosenberg’s extensive research is receiving notice, including from the academic community.
“Rosenberg names the names,” Northern Arizona University health sciences professor Bill Wiist wrote on the PLOS online medical journal. “In example after example she tells how disease-named not-for-profit health organizations, health professional organizations, universities, medical journals, newspapers and magazines, patient ‘information’ websites and front organizations often work at the behest of, collaborate with, or fail to adequately critique the harmful operations of industry.”
Chicago Life Magazine’s review stated, “Rosenberg’s compulsively readable non-fiction book is a multifaceted exposé in the tradition of such pioneering Chicago-based muckrakers as Upton Sinclair, Frank Norris and Studs Terkel.”
She chronicled the drug industry’s entry into direct-to-consumer advertising. Drug companies began using the tool extensively starting in 1997 after the Food and Drug Administration issued guidelines.
“A funny thing happened as Americans viewed all these pill ads,” Rosenberg wrote. “People discovered they weren’t as healthy as they thought.”
Rosenberg said her research actually began in 2002. “But, by 2006, I was getting a lot of patients and whistleblowers. They put this in your lap, and so then you’re almost morally obligated.”
At a reading at the Evanston Public Library this summer, Rosenberg was asked about solutions to some of the issues she has raised.
“I said I really believe when enough consumers speak in unison, they do get the ear of government,” she said. “That’s what happened with the bovine growth hormone. We got the bovine growth hormone out of milk because a lot of mothers said, ‘Why is this hormone in my milk?’”