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The Drugs Don't Work by Katharine A Gilchrist, Vegan Views 89 (Summer 2001)

"Mum, we did about human rights in RE today, and some people think it's an infringement of their rights to put fluoride in the water supply. So if you make me eat meat, it's infringing my human rights".

I would like to claim I delivered this speech, but I didn't. It was made by my younger sister, who was nearly fifteen at the time. I was living at home and eating meals with the rest of the family. A week after the speech, I was eating chicken pie. I realised that my sister was eating something different and asked why. That was it. I would give up meat too. Once I had finished the chicken pie.

However, I didn't make a connection between veganism with avoiding fluoridation. When Ken Livingstone made a flippant comment in The Big Issue about "the Left's history of vegetarianism, no singing and no fornication" I wrote an indignant letter. I insisted that vegans and vegetarians were not necessarily against sex, drugs, rock or roll. Well, obviously vegans take a dim view of some rolls, like bacon ones.

The Big Issue didn't print my letter, but The Vegan did when I made a similar point about straight edge. My view is that veganism is about avoiding harm to others, not necessarily about seeing one's body as a temple. So it would be illogical for a vegan to approve of drink-driving, but that would not mean vegans having to be anti-drugs in all circumstances.

Yet now I feel I failed to make connections between the issues. The missing link can be summed up as "the right not to take drugs". This article is actually about that right. It isn't about drugs that don't work. I just called it that because I'm going through a phase of calling things after song titles.

The issue that tends to be debated is the right to take particular drugs. I feel that it is important to stand up for an individual's right to choose to avoid drugs. This is related to several important matters.

I also feel there are many reasons why vegans should be sympathetic to this right. One of them is that we expect those around us to respect our being vegans whether or not they understand why or agree with us. Therefore, we should respect other people if they decide to be teetotal or non-smokers.

I do not think vegans are letting the side down if we take medication. Nor are we hypocrites. People who criticise us tend to make two mistakes. Firstly, that if we take an animal-tested drug, we therefore must believe that animal testing discovered whether the substance worked and whether it was safe. Which is rubbish. Testing substances on rats does not even prove whether they are safe for mice, let alone humans. Secondly, our critics never clarify whether they would refuse a drug made by a firm which sold unsafe or inadequately labelled products in the Third World.

However, drug firms are hardly the most ethical businesses around and their products can have unpleasant side effects. In theory, once one reaches adulthood, one does not have to take any substances one does not want. If only this right were respected!

Take fluoridation. The government's policy, outlined in its 1999 White Paper "Saving Lives: Our Healthier Nation" is that, if a survey proves the benefits of fluoridation, water companies should be forced to put fluoride in the water supply if there is "strong local support for doing so".

It is bad enough having a pro-hunting MP because I live surrounded by strong local demand for him. I do not want the same ghastly people also deciding which substances I should take into my body with every glass of water. A letter dated 14 October 1999 from the Department of Health informed me that the government would not provide free bottled water for those who voted against fluoridation. This is not about the safety or otherwise of fluoride. I think that if someone needs it, they should be prescribed it on an individual basis. End of story. Otherwise, who knows where it would end? What if the government decided to cut the number of unplanned pregnancies by putting contraceptives in the water?

There is also the question of psychiatric drugs, which I will cover in a follow-up to this article.

Nor do people have a genuine choice re drugs if they are given enough information about how to avoid them. It is easy to end up taking medication because doctors are too rushed to suggest alternatives. Last year, I saw a doctor because I had been suffering from neck pain and headaches. The doctor did check my back to see if he thought muscle tension was to blame. He agreed that muscle tension was probably to blame. Then he got side tracked by my allegedly enlarged thyroid. When I mentioned something about seaweed, he noticed from my notes that I was vegan. I ended up being checked for thyroid function, anaemia and B12 levels. I was delighted to find I was fine.

In the meantime, regular walks were helping soothe my muscle tensions. Then I discovered reiki. I know. It sounds a little far-fetched. Fancy saying that putting your hands on particular parts of the body you can make it feel better. I mean, not even massaging or manipulating the body. The thing is that it works. At least, for some people some of the time. I don't think you can put it down to the placebo effect because I was very cynical about it. I am planning to read about the Alexander technique and maybe take up t'ai chi. I also think it is appalling that doctors don't tell you that changing your diet can improve things like period pain.

There is no single answer. Conventional medicine can be the solution sometimes, but can also be the problem. We are not told about the options available and that is plain wrong.

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Cross-reference: Medical Matters