Oscar season has just passed us by, and with the annual awards ceremony comes increased awareness for the films that are nominated to win the highest honors in the film industry. One of those films, The Dallas Buyers Club, has received six nominations including Best Picture and Best Actor. Plenty of people have seen it; the film grossed nearly $25 million at the box office. Those that haven’t may well rush out to see it now that McConaughey has won the award for Best Actor.
The film stars Matthew McConaughey as a fast-living cowboy type named Ron Woodroof, a man who discovers that he has AIDS. The film takes place in 1986, back when the diagnosis was basically a death sentence. Based on a true story, the movie traces the steps Woodroof took to try and survive —at least a little longer than the projected 30 days—the disease. It is a wonderful character study and McConaughey, who lost nearly 50 pounds for the role, does a superb job playing the emaciated, AIDS-ravaged Texan on his journey to cope with the disease.
Woodroof was among many in Dallas who participated in some of the first testing for the drug AZT and its efficacy against HIV/AIDS. In the movie, unhappy with the knowledge that he may be given a placebo during the testing, Woodroof surreptitiously acquires large amounts of AZT and begins gulping the pills in an effort to stay alive. He doesn’t get better. The booze and cocaine that he is portrayed as consuming at the time probably didn’t help. Left with no other choice Woodroof goes to Mexico and seeks alternatives. What he finds there is a doctor who gives him vitamins, a protein called peptide t, and other more serious treatments one called compound Q and two others called DDC and alpha interferon.
In the film, after beginning a regimen of these drugs Woodroof immediately gets better. Of course he quits boozing and doing all that cocaine, and begins eating healthy as well. In fact, the rest of the movie plays like a campaign for “natural” and healthy living. There are scenes were Woodroof reprimands friends for buying junk food, he continuously refers to AZT as “poison,” and threatens a doctor with an attempted murder charge for administering the drug to him while unconscious. The film plays out as Woodroof sets up the “buyers club” to get his alternative, non-FDA approved treatments to patients in the Dallas area who are not participating in the AZT testing or aren’t responding to the treatments.
This sub-plot to the character study portrays the drug companies as in-cahoots with the FDA to knowingly peddle dangerous drugs to unsuspecting patients with fragile health. It is easy to imagine an uninformed viewer ejecting the DVD at the end of the movie thinking, “Man, those ‘big pharma’ companies really are evil.”
The truth, though, is that AZT turned out not to be poison. It became a useful ingredient in the “cocktail” of drugs that formed a formidable weapon against HIV/AIDS in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The drugs Woodroof was getting from Mexico did too, although some, like DDC, proved to be just as harmful, or more harmful than AZT, in large doses.
To be fair, Dallas Buyers Club does acknowledge with a single line in the closing credits AZT’s role in continued treatment of HIV/AIDS.
But the message of the evil drug companies is still there, very much in the forefront in the second half of the movie. This is an alarming trend in popular culture. As information becomes ever more accessible through the internet, large conspiracy-like theories easily crop up. They oftentimes take on a life of their own creating a fervor that is hard to reason with.
Perhaps because of the growing income gap in the United States, people, already up against hard times financially, are eager to assume that large corporations, run by the richest-of -the-rich, are taking yet another step to make their lives harder. Maybe there are other sociological factors at play. But there seems to be a knee-jerk quality to the assumption that when something goes wrong—like the initial AZT testing in the mid ‘80s—that big business is trying to kill us, or at least drain us of our money while making our life more difficult.
Oftentimes the fervor is wrong or, at the very least, overstated. Another example is the panic surrounding childhood vaccines and their link to autism. This cause was championed by former model and actress Jenny McCarthy, who gave birth to an autistic son in 2002. She built a movement and a second career around the cause. She published a book, titled Louder Than Words: A Mother’s Journey in Healing Autism, which linked the increase in childhood vaccinations to a worldwide rise in autism.
In response, parents began opting their children out of vaccinations. It is not uncommon these days to know parents who have chosen not to have their child inoculated against measles, mumps, and rubella with the once popular MMR vaccine.
The problem is that the fury was all based on a 1998 study published in the journal Lancet. The research proved to be fabricated, the Lancet retracted its publication, and Great Britain stripped the study’s lead author, Andrew Wakefield, of his medical license in 2010. But the damage, largely, has already been done. McCarthy hasn’t backed down — much — from her position.
Fear of vaccinations is now entrenched and states are scrambling to pass laws making it difficult for parents to opt their children out of getting vaccinated. It is now assumed by many that the pharmaceutical companies are covering something up. Yet the only piece of evidence that ever suggested there was a danger has been soundly discredited. Current science has it that there is no verifiable link to vaccinations in a child’s first two years and autism. Yet the rumor persists and is taken as gospel among certain sectors of the population. Troubling indeed.
Another, more immediate example concerns genetically modified organisms or GMOs. This campaign caught on last year as voter initiatives in California and Washington sought to force food producers to provide information on food labeling as to whether their products contained GMOs or genetically altered ingredients. Major agribusiness companies like Monsanto and food companies like Hersheys flooded those markets with advertising and campaign money to stop those initiatives. The actions left many to assume that the big corporations had something to hide. Maybe they did (or do), but the overwhelming scientific data suggested that there are no known health risks associated with GMOs.
Nearly every major newspaper in Washington State came out against the initiative. There were concerns about costs to farmers and, even more troublesome to supporters of the initiative, there was some evidence that the requirements of the labeling were so poorly defined that certain, non-controversial foods would have to carry the new labels while some of the more potentially dangerous or less tested foods would not.
The initiatives both failed, but by very small margins. Many cried foul; that the will of the people had been thwarted by the flood of money from big business. But a more measured look at the debate and the fight over GMOs would conclude that democracy worked. A growing fervor was checked as people became better informed. Not having all their questions answered, voters chose to hold off on sweeping changes to food labeling in the United States.
The same could have or should have held true in the other cases. Closer looks at the history of AZT and the effects of vaccines on children chill the growing temperature of fervor when it is assumed big business is doing something underhanded. Education instead of a knee jerk reaction to assume the worst is always the best policy.