Sally Field is one of my favorite actresses. Since her series, “The Flying Nun” began airing in 1967 she has been part of the American culture. I cried with her during “Steel Magnolias”, cheered her on when her inner child popped out to accept the “Best Actress” Oscar for “Norma Rae” (“You like me. You really like me!”), and was fascinated by her complex and nuanced portrayal of a physician with bipolar disorder on ER. I grew up watching Sally Field on screens both big and small and she sort of feels like a friend in the way that familiar celebrities sometimes do. So when she began appearing in commercials for a popular osteoporosis drug, I became genuinely concerned for her health. Is it possible that the Flying Nun is on a crash course with Boniva?
Boniva is in a class of drugs known as bisphosphonates, along with other osteoporosis drugs like Fosamax and Acontel. Bisphosphonates are very similar to the chemicals used to clean calcium deposits out of pipes by acting as a kind of calcium binder or ‘magnet’. Researchers figured they could be used clinically as well, by attracting calcium into bone. The first report of the biological characteristics of bisphosphonates was published in 1968. At that time, scientists discovered that bisphosphonates have a marked ability to inhibit bone resorption. In other words, Boniva and other drugs in its class severely inhibit the body’s ability to discard old bone. Bones are ‘modeled’ as we grow and ‘remodeled’ when we are adults; bits of old bone are discarded and new bits filled in, keeping our bones healthy. When old bone is not replaced as quickly as it is disposed of, diseases like osteoporosis take hold. It is necessary for bone resorption to occur in order to trigger bone formation. But once Boniva is melded into the skeletal system, it does in fact interfere with the shedding of old dead bone. Rather than ‘die off,’ old, weak bone cells remain, interfering with growth of new bone cells, and causing the rest of the skeletal system to become weak. Bone scans may show the growth of new bone after using bisphosphonates for a while, but studies are showing that the new bone is brittle. The New York Times article, “Drugs to Build Bones May Weaken Them,” states that Boniva users “show a rare type of leg fracture that shears straight across the upper thighbone after little or no trauma. Fractures in this sturdy part of the bone typically result from car accidents, or in the elderly and frail. But the case reports show the unusual fracture pattern in people who have used bone-building drugs called bisphosphonates for five years or more.” Sally puts her 65 year-old body through the paces at the gym, plays with her dog and jumps rope with her grandchildren in Boniva commercials, selling us on the idea that her bones are stronger after taking it. In reality her bones are becoming more and more fragile over time. If this isn’t bad enough, Boniva is also linked to a condition known as ‘dead jaw’ where the jaw bone literally dies and can also include other gruesome side effects like loose teeth, poor healing gums, numbness, pain and exposed jawbone and drainage. If any of these symptoms develop, Sally, you won’t get so much as a role as the dancing tomato on a ketchup commercial.
In addition to Boniva, maybe you’ve heard of Zetia? Accutane? Bextra? Or perhaps you’ve taken Crestor or Vioxx? These are just a few of the other dangerous drugs being litigated at the moment. Pharmaceutical companies develop them, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves them, TV advertises them, physicians prescribe them and you and I take them. Sometimes we get sicker and maybe we die. Apparently the FDA takes the position that unless a substance is known to be a health hazard it can be used until it’s proven to be unsafe. So whether we’re talking about bisphenol-A in our plastic bottles, genetically modified foods or bisphosphonates, the American public is just a large sample in a long-term scientific study. Once diseases or deaths are discovered five or ten years into some drug or food experiment and an ingredient or process is finally banned as unsafe, lawyers and corporations have already made their millions. (Here’s something that will make your jaw drop before it rots off: Boniva costs an astounding $400 a pill.) Unproven new ingredients are then developed or old ones are repackaged as something new and the process begins all over again.
Drug companies want to sell you their wares, free and unfettered, so they donate to campaign funds of politicians who make “regulation” of the food and drug industries a dirty word and underfund the FDA so oversight is nearly impossible. Why isn’t the FDA doing its job, you ask? Because it’s been neutered and its testicles are sitting in a jar on some Congressperson’s desk.
I believe nothing will change with the way drug companies do business until lots (and I mean LOTS) of us rear up on our hind legs and growl, “Enough!” As for Sally Field, well, celebrities do advertisements because they pay well. Really well. But I trusted those chubby little cheeks of yours, Sally. I really did.