© 1997 Karen Selick
Donít Discourage Volunteer Guinea Pigs
An edited version of this article first appeared in the April, 1997 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


 Donít Discourage Volunteer Guinea Pigs

Last August, Health Canada raided several B.C. health food stores and seized their stock of the hormone melatonin.  I heard the news on my car radio while vacationing, coincidentally, in B.C.  Packed in my luggage was a bottle of melatonin capsules, imported by  mail from the U.S., and a book called Melatonin: Your Bodyís Natural Wonder Drug, which I had just finished reading. A few days earlier, I had attended a lecture by a physician on the latest research into human longevity, including a discussion of the pros and cons of melatonin.

Iím really irked by the governmentís paternalistic presumption that it knows better than I do whatís good for me.  Pardon me, Health Canada, but Iíve already tried following Canadaís Food Guide, getting plenty of sleep and exercising regularly.  Guess what?  Iím still getting old.  My hairís turning grey. My knees ache some days.  Timeís running out and your advice doesnít seem to be helping.  So, forgive me, but Iíd like to try something more.

Now, I realize that reading one book and attending one lecture doesnít make me an expert on melatonin.  I understand there may be harmful long-term side effects. I know the alleged benefits may be grossly exaggerated.  I recognize that taking it may ultimately do me more harm than good.

However, there is one subject on which I am unquestionably the worldís foremost authority :  my own level of risk tolerance.  If I decide that the lure of melatoninís potential benefits outweighs the terror of its unknown risks, no-one can dispute the correctness of that decision for me, Karen Selick.  Itís a personal preference, just like my preference not to engage in motorcycle racing or parachute jumping. 

Other people may attach a different weighting to the benefits and dangers of hormones or motorcycles and reach opposite conclusions from mine.  Iím happy to let them decide whatís best for themselves.  All I ask is the freedom to do the same.

The only plausible justification someone might have for objecting to my decisions would be if I imposed extra costs on them.  Given our system of socialized medicine, this is a valid concern.  However, itís not really an argument for limiting my freedom; rather, itís an argument for abolishing socialized medicine.

Instead, Health Canada seeks to impose what might be called "socialism of the spirit."  In ordinary socialism, no-one is supposed to have more material wealth than anyone else.  In socialism of the spirit, no-one is supposed to have more wealth of character than anyone elseóno greater daring, adventurousness, inquisitiveness or foresight.

Proponents of both types of socialism make the mistake of believing that a world of uniformity is the best for all.  Paradoxically, as Nobel economist Friedrich Hayek pointed out, the society in which some are free to grow unusually rich through market mechanisms is the society in which all are more likely to be better off.  Those who manage to accumulate surplus material wealth supply the capital that makes progress possible.  They also demand new and better products which eventually end up becoming available cheaply to all. 

Similarly, those who willingly volunteer themselves as guinea pigs by experimenting with substances like melatonin may prove to be public benefactors.  Drinkers of red wine have contributed to our knowledge about preventing atherosclerosis.  Consumers of tomato products have helped us learn about preventing prostate cancer.  Maybe melatonin users will someday provide valuable data on human longevity. 

But thereís evidence that the motivation to control melatonin and other food supplements may not be entirely benign.  Public safety may just be the window-dressing.  The real goal may be eliminating competition from the pharmaceutical marketplace with government assistance.  According to USA Today, one researcher who has appeared on television warning people not to self-medicate with melatonin just happens to hold millions of dollars in shares of a company that has patented a melatonin-based sleeping pill, to be available only by prescription. 

This is becoming a familiar story.  In 1990, the food supplement tryptophan was banned after being implicated in the deaths of several people.  Later investigation proved the problem had been caused not by tryptophan itself, but by a contaminant in one lone batch imported into North America from a Japanese manufacturer.  Yet despite its exoneration, tryptophan remains unavailable as a nutritional supplement.  At about the same time as it was banned, some new prescription drugs that do the same thingóthat is, increase the bodyís production of the neurotransmitter serotoninócame on the market.  Unlike food supplements, these drugs are patentable.  They are also much more expensive. 

Canada has been participating in United Nations negotiations which may soon compel us to adopt uniform global restrictions on the sale of vitamins, transforming innocuous products like vitamins C and E into prescription drugs at all but the lowest dosages.  The German delegation to these conferences includes representatives of three large pharmaceutical companies who sell patented products that compete with vitamins in the prevention of health disorders.  In countries like Germany and Norway, which have already adopted these rules, the price of vitamins or their patented analogs is many times the North American price.

If these proposals become law in Canada, those who lament that government interference "makes them sick" may no longer be merely using a figure of speech.

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June 15, 2000