Four American Tragedies

Arms sales, opioid abuse, the price of drugs and climate change are some of the major problems in the U.S.

The election of Donald Trump is just a manifestation of the forces that divide an angry and baffled American society. The major problems of that country are well-known: inequality, racism, terrorism, difficulties in reaching political agreements, reduced international influence.

With the exception of racism and inequality, these problems don’t interfere with the daily life of the American people. However, there are other problems that affect them tangibly, cruelly and often.

The irresponsibly relaxed firearms regulations are one of these problems. The figures are terrifying. The U.S. has 4.4 percent of the world population and 42 percent of the weapons. It also has the largest number of mass murders, especially at schools. Since 2002, more than 400 students, teachers and school staff have been killed by firearms; an average of five per month. So far this year, there have already been nine shootings. But in the U.S., the most dangerous place for children and young people is not school, but their own house. Many more are killed by firearms at home than in classrooms. Murderers are often family members or acquaintances.

President Trump and the National Rifle Association argue that this is not an arms problem, but a mental health one. Yet, no other country suffers these kinds of incidents as regularly as the U.S., and statistically, mental illnesses aren’t more common there than in other countries. All independent studies conclude that the reason for these massacres is how accessible firearms are — even machine guns.

Some 75 percent of American people want more control over arms sales and ownership, as well as more restrictions regarding war firearms. But the preferences of this overwhelming majority are systematically dismissed by the NRA which, disguised as a charity, is the lobby for gun manufacturers. It counts 5 million members who mobilize as disciplined acolytes to vote against those politicians who don’t blindly support their extreme views. In addition, the NRA has a lot of money to influence elections. It donated $30 million to support Trump’s campaign and another $3 million to that of Marco Rubio. These are tiny amounts when compared with the profit that manufacturers, whose lucrative interests are well protected by the NRA, make from arms sales. In other words, a minority imposes its will on the majority.

Another issue harming millions of Americans is the abuse of opioids. The drugs can be obtained legally through medical prescriptions, or illegally. Illegal consumption of heroin and synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, has shot up. In 2015, 2 million Americans suffered from health issues caused by excessive consumption of these drugs. A third of the patients who began taking opioids as a way to ease pain ended up abusing them. Eighty percent of heroin addicts have previously been addicted to other types of opioids. Each day, 115 Americans die from an overdose of these drugs. In no other country are so many opioids prescribed and consumed as in the U.S.

By the end of the 90s, pharmaceutical companies had begun a campaign aimed at persuading doctors and hospitals that these drugs were ideal for easing pain and, above all, that they were not addictive.

This resulted in a huge increase in opioid prescriptions, overdoses and addiction cases – but also in economic benefits for these companies. Government attempts to put an end to the prescription of these drugs met with the powerful pharmaceutical lobby’s veto. Again, the economic interest of a few who have money and influence over politicians outweighed the well-being of society.

However, if life-threatening opioids abound in the U.S., drugs which save lives, on the other hand, are scarce. This scarcity is not due to drugs being unavailable, but to the fact the drugs are inaccessible to millions of Americans. The price of drugs in the U.S. is the highest in the world. There, the annual cost of drugs per person is $858, while in another 19 industrialized countries, this quantity amounts to an average of $400. Twenty percent of Americans say the prices are so high they are forced to ration the dose they’ve been prescribed, or stop renewing the prescription altogether once they’ve run out of drugs.

The attitude of some pharmaceutical companies is outrageous. Throughout recent years, companies have increased the price of insulin by 325 percent – with no explanation. The price of Lomustine, a drug to treat cancer, has increased by 1,400 percent since 1993, despite the production costs being the same. The price of an EpiPen, an anti-allergy medication, shot up from $57 to $500 in 2007, while the price of 30 Cycloserine pills, used to treat tuberculosis, went from $500 to $10,800. During 2015 alone, the price of the most popular drugs increased 130 times more than the rate of inflation.

Eighty-two percent of Americans want laws to lower the price of drugs. However, the pharmaceutical lobby competes with the NRA for first place as the business having the most money to block government attempts to protect consumers.

Another event killing the American people is climate change. The year 2017 had the largest number of climate incidents in U. S. history: hurricanes, forest fires, tornadoes, floods and droughts. The frequency of these extreme weather events has increased. California suffered a greater number of fires than ever before, several cities reported their highest temperatures and longest droughts ever. Hurricane Harvey broke rainfall records and devastated Puerto Rico, where more than 1,000 people died. In February, the North Pole was hotter than some places in Europe. How can we explain the reluctance with which the U.S. is facing this problem, a problem which, if nothing changes, will cause a great deal of harm to its people, especially the poorest?

Reducing the emissions that contribute to global warming can be very costly for some business sectors which would obviously rather avoid these costs or postpone them as long as possible in order to maintain their benefits. This is why they’ve so effectively encouraged skepticism, dimming the sense of urgency and making it possible for their accomplices, the politicians, to postpone necessary initiatives. This tactic isn’t new. For decades, tobacco companies funded campaigns to make people believe that there was a “scientific debate” over whether smoking produced cancer or not. “Skeptical scientists” participated in these campaigns, arguing that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove a link between tobacco and cancer. Years later – and with hundreds of thousands dead – we knew that those “skeptical scientists” were sponsored by cigarette manufacturers, whose only purpose was to confound public opinion and prevent the government from protecting the population’s health. Something like that is happening with the “scientific debate” on climate change. Reuters has reported that the top 25 American businesses (Google, PepsiCo, DuPont, Verizon, etc.) are funding more than 130 members of Congress, almost all of them from the Republican Party, who declare themselves skeptical about climate change and systematically block any initiatives to reduce emissions. Exxon Mobil Corp. has admitted to having funded organizations for decades whose only mission was to spread doubt about the scientific consensus on climate change.

What do these four tragedies have in common? Money. Or rather, the propensity of some businessmen to abuse their clients and society in general, in order to increase and protect their incomes. They can do it because they’ve managed to hijack state institutions in charge of regulating them and limiting their abusive practices, and because the government and politicians don’t do anything about this hijacking of the regulators. Thus, a market flaw – company actions harming society – adds to a government flaw, inaction due to personal interests, that allows the government institutions to be hijacked. This takeover of regulators remains when democracy fails; in the elections, the politicians who protect the interests of a few rather than those of the voters are not penalized.

The solution is as obvious as it is hard to carry out: Repair democracy where it is broken. There isn’t a higher priority.

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