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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Drug marketing by the numbers

  pills more meds please

  • Volume of annual pharmaceutical drug sales worldwide: $733 billion
  • What drug companies spend annually on full page ads in medical journals: $500 million
  • Amount drug industry spent on marketing directly to doctors last year: $7 billion
  • Amount drug industry spent on Direct To Consumer “Ask Your Doctor” ads: $5 billion
  • Hours spent watching TV drug ads last year per person, on average: 30
  • Number of patients who request drugs by name from their doctors each year: 16 million
  • Drug industry’s research and development budget compared with marketing budget: 1/3 to 1/2
  • Ratio of drug reps to doctors in North America: 1 to 2.5
  • Median annual total cash compensation for a drug rep (2008): $96,700
  • Favourable change in a doctor’s prescribing habits after less than 1 minute with a sales rep:  ↑16%
  • Prescribing change seen after 3 minutes with a sales rep:  ↑52%
  • Number of presentations last year where North American doctors paid by drug companies pitched that company’s drug to peers:  237,000
  • Forest Labs’ average payment per speech to 2,000 doctors lecturing about Lexapro: $17,350
  • Biggest legal penalty in U.S. history against Pfizer for unethical drug promotion: $2.38 billion
  • Merck’s advertising budget to launch sales of its painkiller Vioxx: $300 million
  • Annual sales of Vioxx from 1999 to 2004: $2.5 billion
  • Number of deaths due to heart attack or stroke caused by Vioxx before Merck’s recall:  60,000+
  • Number of years that Merck knew about the deadly risks of Vioxx before pulling the drug, according to the Annals of Internal Medicine, 11/23/09:   four

Find out more about drugs you’re taking from the independent Therapeutics Initiative at the University of British Columbia.