As Michigan sinks

Mar 5, 2008 at 12:00 am

Welcome to Michigan, comrades. Say, did you know that you live in the only state where you have no right to sue big pharmaceutical companies, no matter what their products do to you?

That's absolutely true. Gov. John Engler, who for a dozen years was our civic equivalent of stomach cancer, rammed that by us back in 1995, when Republicans controlled the entire Legislature.

That means that if you take some drug like Vioxx and it kills you, why, too bad and tough luck, old chap. Drug companies have complete immunity from prosecution here, as long as their products have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

There now. Don't you feel better? After all, you know what brilliant appointments the Bush gang has made. Why, there was Don Rumsfeld, the architect of our defeat in Iraq, and the former horse judge, Mike Brown (You're doin' a heck of a job, Brownie!), the Shrub named to run FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

And naturally, the FDA would never, ever approve a drug that might harm any of us, even if Bush's friends in the pharmaceutical industry were anxious to get down to making big money.

Unfortunately, there have been a few problems. Like the fact that some of the drugs approved since the law was passed turned out to kill people. Like Vioxx, now pulled from the marketplace.

Then there was Rezulin, a diabetes drug that was first approved in 1996, the year the Michigan law first took effect. They pulled it off the shelves four years later, after it had been linked to, oh, 400 deaths and hundreds of cases of complete liver failure.

The drug was made, by the way, by a unit of Pfizer, which used to have a huge, sprawling research operation in Ann Arbor. Last year, the company showed its gratitude to Michigan by closing its Ann Arbor operations, destroying more than 2,400 jobs.

Hey, it's all good. Except when it isn't, and now, 27 Michigan residents who believe Rezulin harmed them are attempting to get relief in the U.S. Supreme Court. The question is whether federal or state law will take precedence when the two conflict.

There is a possible loophole in the Michigan law; a company can be sued if it is proven that they lied to the FDA about what their drug does. They can also be sued if they concealed information about the drug, and there are allegations that may have happened too.

Last month, in a similar case, the high court ruled that patients injured by defective medical devices can't sue in state courts — again, if the product was approved for sale by the good old FDA. Worse, the court handed down an 8-1 verdict. That suggests we might be in for more of the same with drugs. On the plus side, Chief Justice John Roberts is sitting out this one, since he owns stock in Pfizer. (Why am I not surprised?)

Meanwhile, back in Lansing, the good guys in the Legislature have been trying to do something. Many of them have been besieged by constituents who have been harmed by these drugs, like Sheila Bokenkotter of Grand Rapids, who suffered a sudden stroke in 2002. Doctors could find no reason for her to stroke out. ...

Except that she took Vioxx. The Muskegon Chronicle thinks she would likely have sued and won in any of the 49 other states, but in Michigan, the laws says she isn't allowed to.

Last year the Democrats who control the Michigan House passed a package of bills ending the drug companies' total immunity. But the Republican-controlled Senate, once again, failed to act. This is not a surprise. Majority Leader Mike Bishop, the Rochester Republican who runs the Senate, has never shown any sign of interest in doing anything for people, especially people who need some help.

From the moment he slathers on his hair gel in the morning, he lives to service corporations. His fellow Republican, Sen. Tom George of Kalamazoo, has an anti-smoking bill. Big Mike won't even allow a vote on it.

Nor is he going to allow a vote to end the drug companies' power to use us as guinea pigs. After all, his term ends in less than three years, and he'll need a job. (He appears to be moving toward the dim realization that he doesn't have enough money, or speak well enough, to be elected governor.)

There is always the possibility that we could put pressure on his fellow Republican senators to force a vote, but that would take a lot of work. So instead, you might want to relax, swallow that pill, and remember that giant drug corporations are your friends.

This week's Kwame Moment in History:
Make that, future history. Last weekend I got a wonderful e-mail from his poor beleaguered deputy press secretary. (Press Secretary Matt Allen was reassigned, you may remember, after shoving his wife's head through a glass window. They kept Allen on the payroll until last week, when City Council's Kwame Kenyatta finally forced him to resign.)

The annual conference of black mayors was supposed to have their convention here in April. But Kwame's assistant mouthpiece announced that "With great regret, we were unable to come to an accord regarding the logistics to ensure the annual convention would live up to the standards we have set as host city."

Translation: The mayors aren't fools. They have their own images to worry about, and aren't coming anywhere within a text message of this place until city hall is fumigated.

Now that will cost Detroit and the area a few million dollars, since more than 2,500 people were expected to come. But impoverished Detroit has happily wasted millions before for the privilege of having Kwame Kilpatrick as our mayor. And if he has his way, as we all know, we'll be wasting millions more.

Which raises this question: The daily newspapers, especially the Free Press, have done an amazingly great job uncovering this story. So why have their editorial pages been so hesitant to call for the mayor's resignation? As this story shows, his continued presence is a cancer that damages this poor city more and more, every single day.

Time for a little backbone on Lafayette Boulevard?

Postscript on Hillary:
Remember that commercial Hillary Clinton ran, showing a phone ringing in the White House at 3 a.m., and the former First Lady answering it, "Ready from Day 1!"

Barack Obama's ad men swiftly countered with their own version. But a friend from the dark side called to ask me to imagine what a wicked time the GOP could have with that ad in the fall campaign. "The phone rings. Hillary answers it. We are about to be attacked. She turns to Bill for advice.

"No Bill. She wanders through the family quarters, looking for him. He is found in a closet, in the arms of a teenage laundry girl. Hillary becomes hysterical, screaming and beating him with her shoe.

"Cut to a picture of a consternated general, holding a silent phone. In the background, a phalanx of enemy missiles roars into the sky. Bill Clinton's voice in the background: 'Depends on what the meaning of is is,' he says plaintively. (Sounds of explosions.)"

"That's a wrap," my evil friend grinned. Indeed.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]