Drug-crazed and trash-filled

Our rules for pharmaceutical advertising are out of date.

Vernon Smith, the 2002 Nobel Laureate in Economics, summarized the problem with public health care this month as follows: “A is the customer, B is the service provider. B informs A what A should buy from B and a third entity, C, pays for it from a common pool of funds.” The difficulty, Smith noted, is that this system “has no known economic solution because there is no equilibrium. There is no automatic balance between willingness to pay by the consumer and willingness to accept by the producer.”

Provincial moves in Alberta and Quebec to permit private insurance and/or parallel health-care systems may begin to address this lack of equilibrium. Empowering consumers by giving them more information about what ails them is another solution. With this in mind, we urge the federal government to abandon its current regulations on prescription drug advertising in Canada in favour of something more comprehensible.

Drug ads in Canada may mention either particular ailments without discussing possible cures or state the name of a drug without explaining what it can do. This creates a bizarre guessing game for patients, who are treated like children who can't be trusted to receive medical information on their own.

Recently, CanWest MediaWorks Inc. applied to Ontario's Superior Court to have these restrictions removed as a violation of freedom of expression. We would like to add our support. While cynics may argue that our motivation is to help our colleagues on the business side sell more ads, our position is driven by a desire to see equilibrium established in health care rather than any potential corporate gain.

Canadians should have the right to be as informed as possible about potential conditions and cures. The current law dates back to 1949, when the pharmaceutical business was far less scientific and patients were far less sophisticated. Accurate direct drug advertising will inevitably lead to earlier diagnoses and better communication between doctor and patient. And doctors still retain the ultimate authority to prescribe.

Defenders of the current law bizarrely want to keep medical information under total government control. The Health Council of Canada has even suggested that Canada's cross-border television policy might be changed to prevent Canadians from seeing drug ads that air on American channels. Censorship as health-care policy may appeal to the medicare purists at the Health Council. Count us among those radicals who trust Canadians to think for themselves.

Everyone talks about oil and softwood lumber, but one of Canada's most contentious exports is garbage. For years now, Michigan has been receiving millions of tonnes of waste annually from Toronto, surrounding municipalities and the private sector, which in 2004 produced more than half of the 3.4 million tonnes of garbage shipped stateside from Ontario. But Michigan recently passed legislation that would ban the importation of garbage from Canada with just 90 days notice, though any ban would still need approval from the federal Congress. If that were to happen, Toronto and other municipalities could find themselves in a very smelly situation. Current landfills are filling up fast, and no new ones appear to be on the horizon–not surprising, given that it takes years to get a site approved and operating. We need to come up with a comprehensive plan that addresses all aspects of waste management–collection, recycling, composting, transfer and disposal. That plan should include incineration.

Yes, incineration. But not from the toxic smoke-billowing facilities most people think of when they hear the word. (Many jurisdictions, including Ontario, haven't approved incinerators recently because of fears over such emissions.) We must consider new, improved technologies. Some of these new forms of incineration can actually take garbage and turn it into energy that can be used to generate electricity.

One such technology is plasma gasification, which heats garbage until it breaks down. Because it does that without using oxygen, nothing gets burned in the process. One company pitching the process is Ottawa-based Plasco Energy Group Inc. It recently won approval from its hometown municipal council to set up a pilot project without cost to the city. Sustainable Development Technology Canada has awarded Plasco $6.6 million for the project, but the company is still waiting for approval from the Ontario ministry of the environment. According to the company, whose president and CEO is Rod Bryden, former owner of the Ottawa Senators, the plant would process 75 tonnes of garbage a day and generate enough electricity to power 3,600 homes. The process also produces a glass-like solid that could be used in construction.

Toronto now pays $55 a tonne to dump its waste, including Michigan tipping fees, and it will soon pay $60. Bryden has said that, at these levels, enterprises like Plasco could be profitable, based on processing 200 tonnes of garbage a day–roughly equal to the waste generated by a community of 100,000. And wouldn't that be novel: turning garbage into gold.