Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Albuterol and Political Correctness

Nobody get all prescriptive versus descriptive linguistics on me, but I'm noting a bizarre thing lately. It may not be new, but there's this odd tendency for people to call decisions or acts that they disagree with that they think are clearly done to please somebody not them "politically correct."

There's a fair deal of politics in this post, but I swear it's about a pharmacy-related issue.

Political correctness, PC-ness or PC-ism is a term mostly associated with liberals and liberal thinking. The basic gist of PC-ness is the idea that you shouldn't offend people, but it extends beyond that; you shouldn't do things that might offend people. Furthermore, everything you do is potentially offensive to someone, no matter how mundane it seems to you. Taken to its extreme, PC-ness is "left-wing censorship." It is frequently assumed within the context of PC that white males are not really offended by anything, but that women, racial minorities, and religious minority groups are "sensitive" to "careless speech." Women in particular are used as an example, partly because some feminist groups really do go way too far, insisting that the word "human" is offensive because it contains the word "man" and that alternative terminology needs to be developed.

The idea of what is and is not offensive is highly affected by cultural and subcultural norms, so I'm not even going to go into that. You could write a book on the subject. I'm sure someone has.

What I'm going to take issue with is the use of the phrase PC being grossly misapplied and my understanding of why it happens. The most recent example of this that I've seen was when I, out of morbid curiosity, clicked a link to "" (I'm not going to link them because I don't want to boost their google ranking).

Summary: CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons, are compounds that have been used as aerosol propellants and refrigerants for roughly the past century. CFCs react with ozone in the upper atmosphere and catalyze its destruction. Because CFCs are a catalyst, they are not used up in the reaction, so a single CFC molecule may destroy a number of ozone molecules, converting them to oxygen. Ozone blocks ultraviolet radiation, specifically UVB rays. It is well-established that CFCs deplete ozone and that this will increase the amount of UVB rays that reach the earth's surface. CFCs were phased out of aerosol paints and other products during the last decade. 2008 was the last year that CFCs could be included in metered-dose inhalers (MDIs, or "puffers").

MDIs containing a different, non-CFC propellant (HFA inhalers) have been on the market since 1996. As of December 31st, 2008, CFC inhalers may no longer be sold and supplies have basically been exhausted anyway since nobody has been making them for a while. The most commonly used MDIs are albuterol "rescue inhalers" that expand the passageways in the lungs. This is a big deal drug--if you want to know what it's like to have an asthma attack, go get a straw. Put it in your mouth. Breathe only through the straw without opening your mouth wider or using your nose.

Anyway, the old inhalers have been replaced with environmentally-friendly versions. Same drug, same dose, same efficacy. Some people are throwing a fit about this.

There are a few big complaints.

1. The HFA inhalers cost a little more. The old albuterol generic was about $25, less if insurance picked up part of the tab. The new inhalers are about $35-40 and insurance pays less since they're generally "brand name" products now. The whole insurance payment thing might change soon if enough people complain about it.

2. The HFA inhalers don't "feel" the same when sprayed--they're a bit less "forceful," which leads people to think that they don't work.

3. The propellant contains a very tiny amount of ethanol, which might leave a bad taste in the user's mouth. It is not enough to get you drunk by any stretch of the imagination.

The websites railing against HFA inhalers are full of comments that basically tell the same story. My inhaler doesn't work anymore. My daughter changed to an HFA inhaler and she died of an asthma attack a few months later. I changed to an HFA inhaler and now I have a huge long list of health problems I didn't have before. The government and the FDA are ripping us off and lying about the safety and efficacy of HFA inhalers. Here's a list of doctors that don't believe the HFA inhalers work as well. The American Lung Association is full of shit. Etc. I actually got into an "argument" of sorts with a coworker over this one day--not someone that works in the pharmacy. He was convinced that albuterol had been taken off the market completely and that you simply couldn't get it anymore, and when I informed him otherwise he seemed incredulous--but I didn't get an opportunity to talk to him about it further.

The comment that piqued my interest (and inspired this entry) was the complaint that CFCs had been removed from inhalers to "be politically correct."

I don't know exactly what train of thought the commentor used to get to that point, but here's how I see it. Before anyone accuses me of straw-manning anybody, I'm quoting statements made by my incensed coworker. While his thoughts may not be echoed by everyone who opposes this particular bit of regulation, this is the only dialogue I've had with someone who had a problem with the banning of CFCs on principle rather than because of some specific complaint (such as the new inhalers costing more).

1. Some people ("environmentalists") think that CFCs damage the ozone layer.
2. People who want to be "environmentally-friendly" by using CFC-free products should have the right to buy them; let the market decide.
3. I'm not convinced that CFCs damage the ozone layer.
4. Not letting me choose which product to buy is an unfair limitation of my personal freedom.
5. Therefore, a CFC ban limits my personal freedom.

This train of thought hinges on one particular premise, which, again, lest you think I'm constructing a straw man, was basically the crux of my coworker's entire argument: I'm not convinced that CFCs damage the ozone layer.

Let's go with the "free market" approach. In order to make an informed decision about which product is best, you have to understand several things. First, you have to know what the ozone layer is. Second, you have to know that CFCs damage the ozone layer. Third, you have to know the consequences of damaging the ozone layer. Once you have all of that information, you can make a choice: Do I care whether or not the ozone layer is damaged by the products that I use?

Here's the problem. This isn't a personal choice that's (primarily) going to affect only you, like what color to paint your shutters or whether or not to snort cocaine. Your decision is going to affect everyone living on the Earth for at least the next 50 years, which is how long an individual CFC molecule can remain in the atmosphere destroying ozone molecules. You are contributing to an increase in UVB radiation reaching the planet's surface during your lifetime, much of your children's lifetime, and at least part of their children's lifetime. You are increasing the risk of skin cancer for everyone alive now and everyone who will be born over the next several decades.

Frankly, I don't think you should be allowed to make that decision any more than you should be allowed to shoot me and take my wallet or dump sewage on my property, and the fact that you're too short-sighted to see the consequences of your actions shouldn't affect my personal health. I have rights too, you know.

(Incidentally, to preempt the slippery slope, I don't favor smoking bans because if second-hand smoke bothers you, don't go where people are smoking. If the owner of a particular piece of property opts to ban smoking for the comfort of their non-smoking patrons, that's their call, but nobody should be able to tell you you can't smoke outside or in your own car--though exposing your kids to second-hand smoke is certainly irresponsible and I have mixed feelings about it.)

What does any of this have to do with PC-ness?

Well, PC-ness is about not offending people. One of the things that I've heard said several times, more by conservatives than by liberals, is that "you don't have a right to never be offended," and I agree. Sometimes, people are going to do or say offensive things, and unless they're hurting you or there's a specific rule against whatever they're doing (sexual harassment at work, for example), you just have to get over it and move on. That doesn't mean you have to like it, and you can certainly say you don't like it, because criticism is not the same thing as censorship. Plus, some things are just socially unacceptable within a specific culture because enough people have decided that they don't like thing X that doing or saying thing X will get you publically ostracized (being openly racist in many circles in the US is a good example).

At this point, environmentalists become a minority group identified by a set of opinions or beliefs. If you don't accept the whole CFC-ozone layer thing, you might call it an "environmentalist belief," which puts it on par with any other faith-based assumption that you don't share. At that point, the government banning CFCs does seem like a "PC thing." They're doing it to appease some minority's feelings.

Which means that you're treating the CFC-ozone "belief" kind of like the beliefs of religious groups that are not your own. It's like if the government banned pork products because Muslims consider them unclean. You don't care what Muslims believe if you aren't one. Why should the "belief" of a minority group infringe upon the rights of the majority? Stupid political correctness!

This is why calling something PC in this context is just an empty smear--we're not talking about offending people here. We're talking about reducing the risk of skin cancer for human beings all over the world. There is a concrete reason for banning CFCs that has nothing to do with anyone's feelings. The EPA, NASA, National Weather Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration all concur. So do independent researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK and scientists from Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Spain, Switzerland, Finland, Canada, and Greece. Some very compelling evidence would be necessary to invalidate current theories.

Here's the part of all this that I don't entirely comprehend. Conservatives are generally very black-and-white--things are true, or they aren't. They pride themselves on being practical thinkers and denounce liberals as naïve idealists. The reason I think that this is funny is because calling evidence-based environmentally-friendly legislature "PC" is essentially invoking a kind of relativism. "You and I believe different things. Neither one of us can produce proof that will convince the other, so let's just agree to disagree." Except that you can't do that, because whether or not CFCs affect the ozone layer (for example) isn't a matter of opinion. It's either true or it isn't. And if we're talking about laws, something is either a law or it isn't; we have to decide. To "agree to disagree" in that context is to suggest shutting down dialogue on the subject--therefore, nothing is changed and the conservative viewpoint "wins" by default.

Inappropriate use of relativism regarding what is valid knowledge--which I see on both the far left and far right--is actually an interesting enough topic to warrant its own post, and I might have to make one later.

So. Here's the tl;dr summary: You can't criticize someone for being "PC" when what they're doing is not about avoiding offending people but about responding to objective, measurable conditions. This is true even if you think that the thing being done is intended to appeal to a "minority group" because you don't care about the issue at hand. Using the phrase PC doesn't make a damned bit of sense--but as with all language, you're free to use the phrase to mean whatever you want. You just shouldn't expect your listener to interpret what you're saying properly.