Six not-so-simple steps toward protecting us from dangerous drugs

This 1960s anti-nausea pregnancy drug was withdrawn from the market for causing liver damage

Is your doctor prescribing dangerous drugs to you? Prescription drugs have in fact become a leading cause of death, disease, and disability in our society. That’s alarming to those of us who are heart attack survivors and must now take a fistful of cardiac meds every day, and to others like investigative health journalist Alison Bass, author of the book Side Effects.

Last month, she warned us yet again of the disturbing influence the pharmaceutical industry has on medical research and doctors’ prescribing patterns. Not a week goes by, she claims, without a new report on the marketing muscle of the industry and the pervasive ties between the industry and the doctors upon whom we rely for supposedly objective medical advice.”

In fact, the number of patients now taking prescription drugs has soared by 72% in just the last decade, with the result that an estimated 46 million North Americans suffer from adverse side effects and 2.2 million are hospitalized every year because of them.  

Allison Bass quotes a New York Times report showing that the number of emergency room visits in the U.S. from the misuse of prescription drugs nearly doubled over the last five years:

“I was surprised by the news that these prescription overdoses have outstripped emergency care for people taking illegal drugs for the past three years.”

A new book called The Risks of Prescription Drugs from Columbia University Press, co-written by five health policy experts, Donald Light, Howard Brody, Peter Conrad, Allan Horwitz, and Cheryl Stults, reinforces the dangers of these realities. Current regulations, they warn, reward drug companies to expand clinical risks and create new diseases, so millions of patients are now being exposed to unnecessary risks, especially women and the elderly. Regulations reward developing marginally better drugs rather than discovering breakthrough, life-saving drugs. The authors offer the following six strategic solutions to balance Big Pharma’s “marketing muscle” that has allowed such conflict of interest in the first place:

  • Prohibit Direct to Consumer (“Ask Your Doctor!”) advertising by drug companies (because advertising to patients conveys inherently commercialized, biased information). Read more about this here. DTC ads are already illegal here in Canada and in every other country except the U.S. and New Zealand.
  • Create a stronger more independent Food and Drug Administration by more fully funding this federal agency so that it is no longer reliant on drug company user fees. As reported in Side Effects, drug company money now accounts more than half of the FDA’s entire drug-review budget.
  • Change FDA policy so that new drugs are tested against existing drugs rather than against a placebo. Right now, most drugs only need to show they are more effective than a placebo to win FDA approval.
  • Reduce the commercial influence on doctors. While some medical schools such as Harvard have enacted strict policies prohibiting doctors from accepting free gifts, lunches and lucrative consulting and speaking deals from drug companies, too many others continue to allow such conflicts, all of which have been shown to bias doctors’ judgment as researchers and clinicians.
  • Get Big Pharma out of medical education. Dr. Daniel Carlat makes a persuasive, ongoing case for why drug companies should not be allowed to fund continuing medical education.
  • Limit the prescribing of unapproved uses of drugs, since such off-label uses are responsible for many of the adverse side effects seen in patients. See more about this here.
  • Create and fund a new federal institute of medical science that can run clinical trials of new medications free of the drug industry’s commercial interests. This institute could also be charged with doing objective research that compares the effectiveness of new products with existing drugs.

Read more on this from Alison Bass.

3 thoughts on “Six not-so-simple steps toward protecting us from dangerous drugs

  1. “…marketing muscle of the industry and the pervasive ties between the industry and the doctors upon whom we rely for supposedly objective medical advice…”

    One wonders how this has been allowed to happen over the years. It used to be that I would get a prescription only when I needed a basic generic antibiotic for an ear infection or a lotion for a troubling rash. And I could trust that my doctor’s recommendation was not tainted by corporate kickbacks. Now there’s a drug for every condition or possible condition, even things that are not even medical disorders at all but “disease mongering” invented by the drug manufacturers. “Pervasive” indeed. Thanks for this links here.


  2. Why are DTC ads illegal just about everywhere on earth but legal in the U.S.? This seems like a no-brainer way to kick-start a more sensible management of Big Pharma. Big money in big lobbying methinks…


  3. Thanks for this. Compelling reading – I just wish the powers-that-be could be as alarmed about drug marketing as they should be.


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