Features

The death dive

National | Oregon's supply of deadly drugs about to drop, bank CD rates go south, and e-books fall on tough times

Issue: "Humanity Under the Microscope," Dec. 8, 2001

Recession in the death business
Late last month, U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones breathed new life into Oregon's assisted-suicide law-but death enthusiasts in that state still are struggling with a supply shortage. Judge Jones extended an order blocking Attorney General John Ashcroft's Nov. 6 prohibition against doctors prescribing deadly doses of federally controlled drugs. But Eli Lilly, maker of the anti-insomnia drug Seconal, the narcotic favored by Oregon doctors who help dispatch the terminally ill, has been unable to obtain necessary raw materials and hasn't made the drug for several months, according to a report in the Oregonian. So while Judge Jones's order enables suicide doctors to continue helping kill their patients, it has also left them scrambling for new methods. Alternative drugs, such as a drinkable form of pentobarbital, lack the track record of proven effectiveness of Seconal (generic name: secobarbital), which doctors have prescribed to 66 of the 70 patients killed under Oregon's law. Meanwhile, assisted-suicide advocates have shied away from lobbying for ramped-up secobarbital production-a move they say might be tantamount to a lethal dose of bad PR. The Seconal supply may soon die out altogether. According to an Eli Lilly spokesman, the firm will cease making the drug entirely after its contract with New Jersey-based distributor Ranbaxy Pharmaceuticals expires in January. Eli Lilly called the move a "business decision" unrelated to the issue of assisted suicide. Ranbaxy may pick up the manufacturing of secobarbital next month, but the company is first sizing up the market: Not only is the drug highly addictive, it also is not very profitable. Locked and low
With the Federal Reserve's steady notching down of prime interest rates, return rates on certificates of deposit (CDs) have also fallen through the floor. In November 2000, a one-year CD returned an average of 5.57 percent, according to Florida-based Bankrate.com, an interest-rate research and analysis firm. Today, the same CD yields less than half that return, 2.31 percent. Bankrate analyst Greg McBride said conservative investors may want to turn to alternatives such as money-market accounts and investment-grade corporate bonds. CD loyalists can also hedge against low returns by "laddering" certificates, or locking in several with renewal dates that fall within six months to a year, thus periodically freeing money for reinvestment should rates begin to climb again. But that's unlikely this year: Analysts predict the Fed will trim interest rates again this month-a move that would send CD returns even further south. AtRandom.com logs off
The digital publishing revolution suffered a setback last month as Random House shut down its e-book imprint, AtRandom.com. The publishing giant announced its foray into the e-book market in the summer of 2000, but sales of individual e-titles slogged along in the hundreds and even lower. By the spring of 2001, the publisher had already revamped its business model, shifting AtRandom.com's emphasis from traditional literary works to such specialized titles as Dr. Ian Smith's Guide to Medical Websites. Analysts at the Gartner Group, an information technology research firm, contend that the failure of AtRandom.com doesn't signal a good idea gone bad but rather the limitations of electronic content displayed by yet another stand-alone handheld device. The e-book market "is begging for someone to fill it-[by] providing seamless content over a variety of digital devices, wherever they happen to be," said Gartner's Rita Knox. "Seamless content" is digitized material users can access via any Web-linked device. For example, a commuter could "read" a bestseller on the way to work using the audio features of a Web-enabled cell phone, read a few pages at lunch on a desktop PC, then finish up a bedtime chapter at home using the book's print version. Such a scenario fits with analysts' take on Random House's e-book pullout: Despite the publisher's size and influence over the marketplace, the move doesn't signal the demise of the e-book idea. It just reinforces a prevailing sense in the industry that digital literature will likely complement, rather than replace, the old-fashioned print kind for some time to come.

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