Originally published in 1993, Dirty Medicine is the result of an investigation of the Campaign Against Health Fraud (CAHF). It is a detailed exposé of how the pharmaceutical industry operated against competition, and the close links between the industry and government organisations.

Martin J. Walker, Dirty Medicine: The Handbook (London: Slingshot publications, 2011), xviii, 318pp.

With the appearance of AIDS in the 1980s, the first company which could offer a ‘successful’ treatment could dominate the market, and the Wellcome Foundation was able to make sure that AZT gained such a position, even though AZT was both highly toxic and ineffective (as later studies confirmed). In the process, individuals, self-help groups and other organisations advocating alternative approaches were attacked using various propagandist means, principally co-ordinated through the CAHF.

Among the issues ‘rubbished’ by CAHF supporters were many which are now accepted as normal: the need for good nutrition and the value of vitamin supplements and organic food; the existence of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) as a physical illness; and the existence of allergic conditions arising from exposure to chemicals. CAHF also attacked homeopathy, a medical system opposed by the pharmaceutical industry for more than 200 years because of its threat to their profits.

For anyone interested in medicine or journalism, this is compelling reading, and should be compulsory reading. Solidly researched, it shows how organisations can claim to be impartial whilst actually serving the vested interests of an industry, and how such organisations can become a powerful means of misdirecting the public by exploiting the naivety or duplicity of journalists. It also shows how difficult it can be to defend oneself from the attacks and to uncover the truth.

Nearly twenty years and five books later, Walker has written Dirty Medicine: The Handbook in order to gather together the facts he has uncovered, and to bring our knowledge of the truth up-to-date. As he points out, ‘One of the reasons my work stands out from much academic writing is that, until relatively recently, I was the only writer in the field who discussed named individuals’ (p.xiv), and it is by naming names that he opens the door to our understanding of the networks of vested interests and covertly linked actions. As a result, much of this handbook comprises an invaluable index of individuals and organisations and their links with each other.

Walker also brings forward two highly important points. Firstly, he notes that the difference between ‘science’ and ‘industrial science’ is the same as that between ‘art’ and ‘commercial art’. It is the difference between activity ‘without financial profit being a first consideration’ and activity ‘hedged by all sorts of commercial considerations’ (p.xvi). In the context of an industry which profits from ill-health, and not from health, this is not an academic issue, but means that ‘our society has to develop a system of health care that really does care, from the cradle to the grave, and that is led by communities and not by alienated profit-seeking medical research workers, doctors and scientists’ (p.14).

His second important point is that the leaders of the healthcare industry know that it is not enough to use industrial funding to win ‘medical research workers, doctors and scientists’ to serve the need for profits, but such funding must also be used to win the public’s approval: ‘Today it is not only real scientists propagating their philosophy but armies of public relations staff, who train mercenaries to fight the sciences battle’ (p.21). In this battle, the influential individual, the soundbite and the constant repetition of slogans have far more power, even without scientific foundation, than the scientific truth.

If this handbook were only to outline the problems, it would be useful but limited. However, it goes on to give information about the ‘antidote’, those who have fought back, again drawing on Walker’s other books which examine the issues and evidence. At this point, I should declare an interest, since I am one of those Walker mentions with reference to Halloween Science, my detailed critique of Ernst and Singh’s book Trick or Treatment? Drawing on the inspiration of the many people who have stood up to the pharmaceutical industry and its mercenaries, Walker also gives excellent and practical advice on how to campaign.

Despite the frequent minor, but irritating lapses in editing and proof-reading, this book is an essential resource and starting point for those confronting the reality of corporate abuse of power. Walker also explicitly states that it is a work in progress, since new material will continue to emerge, and he encourages readers to provide him with more information. Whether it is the corruption of science, of the organs of government or of the media – so topical at present with the disclosures about Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers – which concerns us, we need to understand the rationale behind the actions and methods used in order to act. As he quotes from Karl Marx at the end of the book, ‘philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’ (p.305). Dirty Medicine: The Handbook helps us to do both.