Drug firms thought that refugees would put protecting their children second to the removal of unwanted leg stubble

Fox-hunting is undoubtedly a pursuit that causes pain and suffering; if it weren't, the upper-class and country set would see little point in it. That a fox can be seen as a pest or as vermin does not excuse the celebration of cruelty that accompanies the chase. Mice and cockroaches are vermin, too, but you don't see Rentokil in hunting pink, charging round your kitchen on a horse, blowing a trumpet and calling in the dogs if the prey has gone to ground behind the fridge.

Some say that hunting is the most painless way to kill a fox. However, if foxes had to choose between being chased and then torn apart by dogs, or a bottle of bubbly and a couple of vixens in a penthouse burrow, followed by a discreet lethal injection, guess which they would go for.

The hunting with hounds bill still has problems, though. First, it is being used cynically to pay off backbenchers and avoid scrutiny of the rather more pressing issue of British troops going to Afghanistan - who, in the absence of al-Qaeda forces, will be providing the US military with something to shoot at.

Second, once fox-hunting is abolished, what is to be done with groups of hoorays who will still want to charge around on their horses? Both these problems could be solved if, instead of troops, we despatched the fox-hunters to Afghanistan. After all, they claim that it is the thrill of the chase they enjoy. What could be more thrilling than galloping around the mountains and caves of Bin Laden territory and calling in the terriers to dig out those pesky Taliban who burrow in?

The hunting hoorays would probably not be the first unwanted gifts fobbed off on to the citizens of Afghanistan. It is likely that the US aid effort involves a practice known as "drug dumping", where pharmaceutical companies offload unsaleable stock as charitable donations.

Drug dumping has been around since the US tax laws made it profitable for pharmaceutical companies to "donate" their unwanted wares to the developing world, in return for tax credits.

There are several formulas for calculating these tax credits, but even the method that gives the smallest financial gain to the company still means they get to offset twice the cost of the drugs against tax. Given that the company would have to pay to dispose of unwanted or unusable drugs safely in regulated incinerators, the financial gains for "donations" start to mount up. So if a company has a product that isn't selling well, or if it needs the warehouse space, it makes sense to donate.

In practice, the tax laws have led to large quantities of out-of-date, short-dated or inappropriate drugs ending up in emergency zones. One of the most infamous cases was the dumping of appetite stimulants in a famine-stricken Sudan.

I can think of nothing, short of flying to Sudan and gorging on a gourmet meal in front of families as they starved to death, that can compare to the contempt the donating company showed for human life. That the US taxpayer probably financed this corporate snuff sideshow just adds insult to injury.

Nor is this an isolated example. Bosnia-Herzegovina had so many unwanted, short-dated or inappropriate drugs dumped on it during the conflict in the early 1990s that the World Health Organisation had to shell out $34m to build an incinerator to dispose of the pharmaceutical companies' philanthropy. When Kosovars fled the bombs and the attacks on their families and homes to go to refugee camps in Albania in 1999, the US drug companies must have skipped around their boardrooms in delight at the prospect of clearing their shelves once again. Yes indeed: they dumped ten tonnes of depilatory cream and haemorrhoid cream in the makeshift Albanian camps.

Surely there is nothing a woman fleeing from murder, mayhem and burning houses would want less than hair remover. But maybe I'm wrong and the human impulse to survive and protect offspring comes second to the removal of unwanted leg stubble and bikini-line maintenance. If I am wrong, then by all means let me be the first to offer my services to Amnesty International's forthcoming benefit for Immac Aid.

Short-dated drugs are ones that can still be used, if they have previously been purchased, but cannot be sold in the US because they are between the sell-by and expiry dates. These are popular fodder for donation. Perhaps the biggest donation of this type was made by Eli Lilly and Co, which sent millions of Ceclor CD tablets, nearing their sell-by date, to Rwanda in 1994. Ceclor, an antibiotic, was not on the WHO list of approved drugs, and doctors refused to prescribe it. The company's press release said: "This is yet another example of Lilly's commitment to giving, especially in times of human tragedy."

In the last Budget, Gordon Brown announced a series of measures to improve the health of the developing world, including a tax credit scheme that would enable UK pharmaceutical firms to offset donations against tax. Many will find it a sickening prospect to help some of the richest companies on earth dump their unwanted crap on the most vulnerable people on earth. To prevent this, the companies should get no more than the cost of the drugs in tax credits, and the World Health Organisation guidelines on drug donations should be incorporated into the legislation.

Gordon Brown should remember that it is easier to pass a good law than to amend a bad one.

Mark Thomas is the co-author of a War on Want report on drug dumping, which is the subject of his Channel 4 show on Wednesday 3 April, 11pm

Next Article