How to turn a condition into a disease by “selling sickness”

“Selling sickness” means that the line between healthy and sick becomes blurred – and demand for medical treatment increases. If you’re a drug company, it’s a swell way to get consumers to demand treatment that may or may not even be necessary. So says a Dutch study that investigated industry-funded information campaigns around common conditions like restless legs syndrome, overactive bladder and heartburn.

These “ask your doctor” campaigns focused on symptom advertising or disease mongering.

Dutch law, as in Canada (but not, significantly, in only two countries: the U.S. and New Zealand) prohibits “Direct To Consumer” public advertising of prescription drugs. You might well wonder why these two countries are the only ones on earth who still permit this marketing practice. Continue reading

Can statin drugs really save your life?

When I was hospitalized after my heart attack, cardiologists immediately prescribed Lipitor, a statin drug which happens to be the biggest-selling drug on earth, made by Pfizer, which happens to be the biggest drug company on earth. My LDL (bad) cholesterol numbers went from 4.1 while still in the Coronary Care Unit down to 1.9 a few short weeks later.

(These are Canadian readings, by the way: to convert from Canadian to American readings, just multiply by 40). That’s quite a spectacular result for lowering one’s LDL cholesterol levels – but the question remains: do I really need to take this powerful cholesterol drug every day for the rest of my life?

Dr. Mark Ebell, a professor at the University of Georgia and deputy editor of the journal American Family Physician, says:

“High-risk groups have a lot to gain. But patients at low risk benefit very little if at all. We end up over-treating a lot of patients.”

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Are you being “over-diagnosed”?

According to a trio of widely published American researchers, many of us are “over-diagnosed” by being labelled with a medical condition that will never cause us any symptoms or premature death. We are, they tell us, mistakenly swallowing the popular conviction that early detection of everything is always for the best.

Their book, Over-diagnosed: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health, claims that over-diagnosis is in fact one of medicine’s biggest problems, causing millions of people to become patients unnecessarily, producing untold harm, and wasting vast amounts of resources in the name of disease mongering. Continue reading

Why are gynecologists still prescribing HRT despite known risks?

How is it possible that half of all gynecologists are still prescribing hormone replacement therapy to their patients for uses that are clearly unsupported by evidence – despite the alarming warnings of the largest randomized, placebo-controlled trial of HRT ever performed?

This reality is “curious”, according to Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman at Georgetown University Medical Center, in a new study* examining 340 medical journal articles about HRT. Her research was published yesterday in the journal, Public Library of Science Medicine.

But even more curious are her findings that the majority of the doctors who have written pro-HRT papers for medical journals have been funded by the very drug companies that manufacture hormone replacement drugs.

These companies were financially hurt by 2002 results of the massive Women’s Health Initiative study, which meant an almost immediate catastrophic loss of sales revenue for manufacturers of all HRT drugs. Prescriptions dropped by 80% – a major blow to companies like Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, whose HRT drugs Prempro and Premarin had earned the company over $2 billion just one year earlier.  (That still puts the net gain well ahead for the company, who has now settled a third of the pending lawsuits from women who developed breast cancer while on Prempro, after the company set aside over $772 million to resolve legal claims, according to Bloomberg).

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Stealth marketing: how Big Pharma tries to shape medical news

Although Jeanne Lenzer’s article about stealth marketing in Reporting On Health is actually meant for other journalists, it reminds me that we consumers should all be more savvy when it comes to evaluating medical news. Before my own heart attack, for example, I pretty well swallowed any medical miracle breakthrough news without question.

But because I now take a fistful of powerful cardiac medications everyday, I have become gradually both aware of and alarmed by Big Pharma marketing, and especially about what Dr. Marcia Angell herself (for over 20 years the Editor-in-Chief at the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine) calls “… its pervasive conflicts of interest that corrupt the medical profession.”

In fact, I have absolutely no way of knowing which of my cardiac meds were prescribed for me based on flawed research or tainted medical journal articles that were funded and ghostwritten by the very drug companies who stand to gain by paying for positive outcomes.  And, worse, neither do my doctors. This is allowed to happen in part because of what we now know as stealth marketing“.

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Too many smokers are quitting on their own – so Pfizer pays doctors to plug their Nicorette gum

 To celebrate the launch of its new Ice Mint coated nicotine gum a few years ago, Pfizer Canada hired “brand ambassadors” dressed in ski suits to give out free samples in Calgary and Toronto. The company’s press release declared:

“The new formulation of Nicorette gum is another option for smokers who want to free themselves from tobacco dependence. Quitting smoking is a difficult addiction to overcome. People who quit smoking may suffer severe cravings and withdrawal symptoms; however, using Nicorette Ice Mint Coated Gum can help smokers quit by reducing nicotine cravings and withdrawal symptoms and significantly improve their chances to quit smoking.”

Sounds pretty straightforward, except that the pitch isn’t attributed to the Pfizer PR firm, but to a physician, Dr. Rob Weinberg  – a doctor who was paid by Pfizer for participating in drug promotion. He is a family practice physician in Toronto.  Continue reading