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Bid for Immunizations Suggests a Drug Maker's Unhealthy Focus on Latinos

July 28, 2002|FRANK del OLMO

Most political analysts, myself included, see the growing clout of Latinos in the Legislature--19 of 80 Assembly members and seven of 40 state senators--as a good thing. It symbolizes the emergence of a group that has often been marginalized in California's history.

But this newfound Latino power can have downsides. It can provide a tempting target for lobbyists looking for a knee-jerk bloc vote for schemes that can be sold as a way to help the state's fast-growing Latino population.

I can't shake the feeling that this is what's happening with a worrisome Assembly bill awaiting action by the state Senate. AB 915, by Assemblyman Dario Frommer (D-Los Feliz), was introduced at the request of a liberal advocacy group called the Latino Issues Forum. It would require schoolchildren to be immunized against hepatitis A in order to attend school. But not all children in California; only those in the six southernmost counties, including Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego.

The bill's aim, as its sponsors admit, is to target communities with lots of Latino schoolchildren in the hope of stemming an "epidemic" of hepatitis A among Latino kids.

I qualify the word "epidemic" because public health experts disagree as to whether the incidence of hepatitis A among Latinos is of epidemic proportions or not. Backers of the bill cite a study by the Center for the Study of Latino Health & Culture at UCLA that concludes there is an epidemic. But the state Department of Health Services is dubious, citing a recent drop in hepatitis A as measured by the public-health statistics it gathers. DHS believes the decline may obviate the need for mandatory immunizations.

When experts disagree, especially in a sensitive and complex area like public health, the smart thing for nonexperts to do is await more information.

But AB 915 is rolling along. It is scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Aug. 5.

This is where the lobbyists pushing the bill come in. Most have links to the drug company Glaxo- SmithKline, one of two firms (Merck & Co. is the other) licensed to manufacture the vaccine.

GlaxoSmithKline paid $50,000 for the UCLA study being used to justify AB 915. The GlaxoSmithKline executive who arranged for the study, Gaspar Laca, happens to be vice president of the Latino Issues Forum board. The drug company also gave the forum $20,000 to underwrite a health issues conference where the hepatitis A "epidemic" was one of the topics.

But most interesting of all is a recent report in the Sacramento Bee, which found that GlaxoSmithKline had donated nearly $235,000 this year to dozens of legislators from both political parties.

Some of those contributions are to members of the Assembly and Senate committees that deal with health issues, which is no great surprise. But how does one explain the many donations to incumbent Latino legislators, regardless of their committee memberships? Just over 100 donations to individual legislators are listed in GlaxoSmithKline's most recent campaign donations report, and 52 are to Latino legislators. Only 12 of the Legislature's 26 Latino members sit on health-related committees. This pattern of political donations doesn't pass my smell test.

Is GlaxoSmithKline's interest in Latino legislators a matter of public health or good marketing? Laca of GlaxoSmithKline says his concern was to focus attention on a Latino public health problem that might otherwise be overlooked by policymakers. Yet this wouldn't be the first time a major drug company had targeted Latinos. And the precedent is scary.

Last month, my Times colleague David Willman followed up on his series about the dangerous diabetes drug Rezulin. Among the new documents he uncovered were marketing plans by the drug's manufacturer, Warner-Lambert, that laid out a campaign to get doctors with predominantly Latino patients "to take the risk" of prescribing what has proved to be--in hundreds of cases--a fatal drug.

The experience with Rezulin is reason enough that state legislators, regardless of ethnic background, should be extra careful before voting public-health mandates into law. Listen to the experts, and don't rush to judgment.


Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

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