Paula Deen and Victroza

I questioned last week whether it should really matter to anyone but Paula Deen whether Paula Deen has diabetes.

Deen, who touts high-fat, high-carb concoctions on her TV cooking show, has taken some heat since she announced to the public, after three years of suffering from the disease, that she was diabetic.  Some feel it was dishonest of Deen to keep hawking these recipes to the public while concealing from it an illness notoriously closely correlated to a diet just like the one she promotes.

Paula Deen

Profiting from diabetes, or suffering from it?

I wasn’t so sure: After all, we all know that Deen’s diet is unhealthy, and that unhealthy diets can lead to diabetes.  Whether Deen herself has succumbed to the disease is trivial, except to the extent that it may make her look bad to her fans.  Her contracting diabetes herself doesn’t change whether the diet she promotes is unhealthy or, frankly, whether Deen knows that diet is unhealthy.

But one aspect of Deen’s revelation that I didn’t address last week has people further put off: She’s the new spokeswoman for Danish drug giant Novo Nordisk, which makes the diabetes drug Victoza.  Victoza must be injected, it’s not insulin, and the list of warnings and possible side effects that accompanies the drug is frightening.  It’s also expensive: about $500 per month per patient.

Deen’s deal with this drug company raised hairs on some people’s necks because she now seems to be profiting from a disease that she’s apparently been pushing on the public throughout her cooking career.

And I see people’s point.  The timing doesn’t look great; and touting food that can lead to diabetes with one hand while selling a diabetes drug on the other seems to create a conflict of interest, and make it look as though Deen has made a deal with the devil.

And indeed, I’d prefer to see Deen become a spokeswoman for a healthier diet and a healthier lifestyle, one that would prevent people from getting this disease to begin with. (It’s not a disease you want: it can lead to blindness, amputation and death.)  Certainly that approach would seem to be more helpful to people than simply touting an expensive and dangerous drug that merely treats, and does not cure, the disease and that may create additional health problems for its users.

But Deen is welcome to do as she pleases.  Diabetes is something we’re better off avoiding, but the fact of the matter is, people get it.  And when you have it, it’s possible that a drug like Victroza makes your life better (despite its risks and expense).  In which case, Deen is doing the public a service by getting the word out about this drug.

There may be better, dietary and lifestyle steps toward improving your health and your life if you have diabetes, but not everyone seems willing to take those steps, and for people who won’t do it the drug may be better than nothing.  Similarly, while we all know we should eat well, many people simply don’t, and it’s likely that Paula Deen is preaching to the converted when she touts her recipe for deep-fat-fried meats and chocolates.  She may merely be helping people who eat very badly, to eat delicious very bad foods.

Of course, this all sounds like one grand apology for Ms. Deen, and I don’t necessarily mean to do that.  Diabetes is a major and rapidly growing problem for this country, as the Centers for Disease Control predicts that 50% of Americans will suffer from the disease as soon as 2020.  This is frightening not only for our already pressed healthcare system, but also for what it means for our bodies.  Diabetes is only one symptom of a deteriorating public health that’s also leading to high rates of heart disease, obesity and likely even certain forms of cancer.

So I hardly think Deen is doing the world a service.  But the problem goes way, way beyond Paula Deen, and there are far more responsible individuals and organizations when it comes to how we’ve shaped the American diet.  A big part of me views her more as the victim here than the villain.

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