Free Trade and Free Antibiotics

The next time you visit your doctor with a case of the sniffles, he may want to inquire about your position on the North American Free Trade Agreement before deciding whether to reach for his prescription pad.

A recent article by the Charlemagne columnist of The Economist points out a strong correlation among those European nations whose populations believe that globalization offers an opportunity for economic growth and the data on consumption of antibiotics. The article notes:

Rather like trade protection, the popping of an antibiotic offers false comfort to individuals. In an anonymous 2008 survey, Greek pediatricians said that 85 percent of patients demanded antibiotics for children with the common cold virus. As with political debates over free trade, some people appear to suffer from a corrosive lack of trust when the authorities tell them that they are demanding the wrong thing. Even when told that antibiotics cannot fight viruses, 65 percent of Greek parents in the survey insisted they did until their doctors gave in.

Four of the top five countries most skeptical of the benefits of
globalization in a Eurobarometer poll are among the top antibiotic
users. At the other end of the scale, six of the bottom ten match. As
for America, Charlemagne notes that it “would be near the top of an EU
chart for antibiotic use; it is also a country currently wrestling with
strong protectionist instincts.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 70
percent of the bacteria that cause hospital-acquired infections are
resistant to at least one of the drugs most commonly used to treat
them. Moreover, both the CDC  and the World Health Organization
have identified antimicrobial resistance and the creation of drug
resistant “super-bugs” as a pressing global health problem. Yet as my
colleague Jane Sarasohn-Kahn wrote last week,  retail pharmacies at Walmart, Target and
many large grocery chains have started a price war to attract lucrative
prescription-filling customers by offering free antibiotics.

Even Milton Friedman, whose Capitalism and Freedom
summarily dismissed physician licensing and hospital accreditation as
unneeded obstacles to an efficient market, drew the line at practices
which affected non-market participants (e.g., the doctor whose
incompetence harmed someone other than his own patient). Which means,
if I’ve got The Economist right, that the pro-trade capitalists (the
large retailers) are using the lure of free antibiotics to make money
off the protectionist masses. And the heck with those super-bugs that
might kill the rest of us. Capitalism and freedom, indeed.

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