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Drugs the Cause of Most Deaths

One of Ellen White's favorite topics, besides the gospel, was healthful living. Here is what she had to say in August 1864 about what she considered one of the most common causes of death:

I was shown that more deaths have been caused by drug-taking than from all other causes combined. If there was in the land one physician in the place of thousands, a vast amount of premature mortality would be prevented. Multitudes of physicians, and multitudes of drugs, have cursed the inhabitants of the earth, and have carried thousands and tens of thousands to untimely graves.—Spiritual Gifts, vol. 4a, p. 133, bold added.

Adam Hart-Davis/DHD Multimedia Gallery.
Thus Ellen White believed that more than 50% of deaths were due to "drug-taking." Sound weird, extreme, radical, and just plain off the wall? Not if you're a regular reader of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). But before we quote from that most prestigious of medical journals, let's explore just a little about what Ellen White meant by "drug-taking."

It might seem to the modern reader that Ellen White was denouncing the use of antibiotics, but they weren't discovered yet in 1864 when the above was published. Instead, physicians of that bygone era resorted to such odd-sounding remedies as "mercury, strychnine, arsenic," "opium," and tobacco, and these were among the drugs Ellen White was referring to (Selected Messages, vol. 2, pp. 278, 443, 445; Temperance, p. 63).

We thus might expect the situation to be better today than in Ellen White's day, given the fact that medical science has progressed to the point that far fewer drugs contain mercury, strychnine, and arsenic. In fact, one has to resort to homeopathy to get a dose of strycnine, aka nux vomica. Thus it wouldn't surprise us if today's mortality statistics for drugs are lower than 50%.

But just how high are the statistics today? And what drugs should we consider in answering that question? A careful perusal of Spiritual Gifts and other works indicates that Ellen White, similar to modern authorities, classified tobacco, alcohol, and even tea and coffee as drugs:

They become addicted to the use of wine and alcohol, tobacco and opium, and go from one stage of debasement to another.—Temperance, p. 274.

I was shown that the innocent, modest-looking, white poppy yields a dangerous drug. Opium is a slow poison, when taken in small quantities.—Spiritual Gifts, vol. 4a, p. 138.

Tobacco, in whatever form it is used, tells upon the constitution. It is a slow poison.—Spiritual Gifts, vol. 4a, p. 126.

Tea and coffee are stimulating. Their effects are similar to those of tobacco; but they affect in a less degree. Those who use these slow poisons . . . .—Spiritual Gifts, vol. 4a, p. 128.

Nature does her best to expel the poisonous drug, tobacco; but frequently she is overborne.—Healthful Living, p. 109.

Those who frequent the saloons that are open to all who are foolish enough to tamper with the deadly evil they contain, are following the path that leads to eternal death. . . . Under the influence of the drink they take, they are led to do things from which, if they had not tasted the maddening drug, they would have shrunk in horror. When they are under the influence of the liquid poison, they are in Satan's control.—Temperance, p. 24.

[The physician] is called to attend young men and men in the prime of life and in mature age, who have brought disease upon themselves by the use of the narcotic tobacco.—Counsels on Health, p. 322.

I am not guilty of drinking any tea except red-clover-top tea, and if I loved wine, tea, and coffee, I would not use these health-destroying narcotics, for I prize health and I prize a healthful example in all these things.—Selected Messages, vol. 2, p. 302.

Therefore, when comparing today's mortality statistics with Ellen White's statement that "more deaths have been caused by drug-taking than from all other causes combined," we should include deaths from alcohol and tobacco.

The Cause of About 25% of Deaths

The March 10, 2004 issue of JAMA carried a very interesting study by Mokdad et. al. entitled, "Actual Causes of Death in the United States, 2000." Out of 2.4 million deaths that year, the following were listed as among the causes of death:

Cause of Death Estimated Range Estimated Number % of Total Deaths
Tobacco Not Given 435,000 18.1%
Alcohol consumption 70,808 to 140,000 85,000 3.5%
Illicit drug use Not Given 17,000 0.7%

The above numbers indicate that roughly 25% of fatalities in the year 2000 were due to tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs. While that's a huge chunk of the >50% figure Ellen White referred to, it isn't >50%. But then, we've got a number of other studies to look at.

Properly Adminstered Drugs

Quite remarkable was the report by John Hopkins' Dr. Barbara Starfield in the July 26, 2000 issue of JAMA. This report ("Is US Health Really the Best in the World?") expressed concern that U.S. health falls way behind other industrialized nations. It summarized death rates from several causes in the following way:

Cause of Death Estimated Number
Nonerror, adverse effects of medications 106,000
Nosocomial (infections in hospitals) 80,000
Other errors in hospitals 20,000
Unnecessary surgery 12,000
Medication errors in hospitals 7,000

Adam Hart-Davis/DHD Multimedia Gallery.
Thus we have a modern, medical authority telling us that, despite today's much rarer use of mercury, strychnine, and arsenic in medicines, we still have at least 113,000 (106,000 + 7,000) deaths a year due to medicinal drugs, with 93.8% of that number involving no errors whatsoever. In other words, nearly 1 out of every 20 people who die in the United States each year die as a result of a medicinal drug they receive.

Why the Numbers Could Be Higher

When we examine the study that Dr. Starfield based her 106,000 figure on, we discover that the picture may be better or worse than that. According to Lazarou et. al. in "Incidence of Adverse Drug Reactions in Hospitalized Patients," deaths in hospitals due to properly prescribed and properly administered drugs range from 76,000 to 137,000 (JAMA, Apr. 15, 1998). 106,000 was but the average of these two numbers.

Lazarou's study only considered serious Adverse Drug Reactions (ADRs) in its calculations, and excluded events considered to be possible ADRs. It also excluded events "caused by errors in administration, noncompliance, overdose, drug abuse, or therapeutic failures."

The study defined a serious ADR as "an ADR that requires hospitalization, prolongs hospitalization, is permanently disabling, or results in death." One can imagine that a serious ADR that was permanently disabling rather than fatal this year could be a contributing factor toward death in later years. This consideration would make Ellen White's statistics higher than those of Lazarou et. al., since she does not specify that the drugs have to cause death immediately.

"Organ Failure"

Another reason why her statistics might be higher is explained by Dr. Starfield:

. . . currently, most deaths resulting from these underlying causes are likely to be coded according to the immediate cause of death (such as organ failure).—"Is US Health Really the Best in the World?" JAMA, July 26, 2000, p. 484.

In other words, since most fatalities are likely blamed on the patient's organ failure rather than on the drugs they were taking that caused the organ failure, Dr. Starfield contends that we really don't know how many people are dying each year because of prescription drugs. And this problem is a global one, for at least in Ireland, "less than 10% of all serious" ADRs get reported (National Medicines Information Centre, vol. 8, num. 3 (2002), p. 3).

Yet another reason why Ellen White's statistics might be higher is the fact that Lazarou's study only considered deaths due to drugs in hospitalized patients, whereas she was referring to everyone, whether outpatient or inpatient.

The various types of ADRs Lazarou et. al. gave were as follows:

Type of Serious ADR Estimated Range of Serious ADRs Estimated Number of Serious ADRs Estimated Range of Fatalities Estimated Number of Fatalities
Resulted in a hospital admission 1,033,000 to 2,060,000 1,547,000 15,000 to 71,000 43,000
Occurred in the hospital 635,000 to 770,000 702,000 41,000 to 85,000 63,000
Totals 1,721,000 to 2,711,000 2,216,000 76,000 to 137,000 106,000

Thus, even given the fact that "most deaths resulting from these underlying causes are likely to be coded according to the immediate cause of death (such as organ failure)," Lazarou still concludes that "fatal ADRs ranked between the fourth and sixth leading cause of death in the United States in 1994."

Adam Hart-Davis/DHD Multimedia Gallery.
Aren't They Tested?

How can this be, given the fact that new drugs are routinely tested so well? Maryann Napoli of the Center for Medical Consumers explained some of the reasons why in her testimony before the "Meeting of the Institute of Medicine's (IOM's) Committee on the Assessment of the US Drug Safety System," a meeting that occurred on July 19, 2005.

Mrs. Napoli explained that drug companies sponsor the trials that test the drugs, and thus are responsible for the reports that get published in "high-profile medical journals." (Sound like a possible conflict of interest?) While those reports describe supposed benefits quite well, they frequently omit key data regarding ADRs. For example, in men, statin drugs are supposed to lower the risk of non-fatal heart attacks by 1.8%, yet the reality is that that 1.8% lower risk is accompanied by a 1.4% increased risk of death, significant disability, hospitalization, or a life-threatening event. Moreover, 60% of the trials being reviewed refused to turn over their "serious adverse events" data, thus making it impossible to know really how beneficial or detrimental these drugs really are.

It isn't as if Ms. Napoli's concerns are new. Back in 2001 John P. A. Ioannidis, MD and Joseph Lau, MD had this to say after looking at 192 randomized drug trials:

Results  Severity of clinical adverse effects and laboratory-determined toxicity was adequately defined in only 39% and 29% of trial reports, respectively. Only 46% of trials stated the frequency of specific reasons for discontinuation of study treatment due to toxicity. . . . Overall, the median space allocated to safety results was 0.3 page. A similar amount of space was devoted to contributor names and affiliations . . . .

Conclusions  The quality and quantity of safety reporting vary across medical areas, study designs, and settings but they are largely inadequate. Current standards for safety reporting in randomized trials should be revised to address this inadequacy.—"Completeness of Safety Reporting in Randomized Trials," JAMA, Jan. 24, 2001.

29%, 39%, and 46%. That's not real good considering that people's lives are at stake.

Rat Poison a Common Cause of ADRs

An advisory committee for the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics has a Pharmacy and Therapeutics Subcommittee, which puts out periodic newsletters. One of those newsletters had this to say:

. . . the nine most frequently reported agents associated with an adverse drug reaction were: warfarin, phenytoin, levofloxacin, vancomycin, morphine, amiodarone, IVIG, nafcillin, and tirofiban.P&T News, May 2003.

Warfarin (aka Coumadin), the first drug on the above list, has been a common ingredient in rat poison for a long time. A common anti-coagulant, it causes rats and mice to bleed internally, which then makes them thirsty, which then makes them head out of doors to find water. Since they end up dying outside instead of in your house, your house smells better, and that's why it's been so popular in rat poison.

Unfortunately for a lady we visited in the hospital in early 2006, she had been given warfarin, without adequately monitoring her blood to make sure her clotting ability had not dropped too far. It's absolutely essential that anyone taking Coumadin be carefully monitored, but this lady wasn't. She ended up bleeding inside her skull, and was in ICU when we saw her. She nearly died.

Ellen White's Alternative

Okay, so what did Ellen White advocate using instead of all these drugs?

Pure air, sunlight, abstemiousness, rest, exercise, proper diet, the use of water, trust in divine power—these are the true remedies. Every person should have a knowledge of nature's remedial agencies and how to apply them.—Counsels on Health p. 90.

In the Saviour's manner of healing there were lessons for His disciples. On one occasion He anointed the eyes of a blind man with clay, and bade him, "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam. . . . He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing." John 9:7. The cure could be wrought only by the power of the Great Healer, yet Christ made use of the simple agencies of nature. While He did not give countenance to drug medication, He sanctioned the use of simple and natural remedies.—Desire of Ages, p. 824.

Give Us Your Opinion

Is Ellen White right about drugs causing so many deaths?
Maybe she is, since the Journal of the American Medical Association seems to support what she said.
There's no way she can possibly be right. Quite scaring people. It could hurt the economy.
Yes, I think she is right. For some time now I've thought that natural remedies were the way to go.
I don't know. I've never heard this before. I didn't know so many medical professionals felt this way.
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