Opinion: February 19, 2012 By Steven Greer, MD
The CBS news show “60 Minutes” made waves with a story asserting that the antidepressants taken by millions of Americans daily are actually no more effective than sugar pill placebos. Also recently, the national evening TV news reported on a research publication from Harvard that found a 50% increase in the chance of diabetes among women who took cholesterol lowering statin drugs like Pfizer’s Lipitor, and that cheaper generic statins were as effective as the more expensive branded statin Crestor. Those are just three examples of a new trend in mainstream media to expose controversies in blockbuster drugs that generate tens of billions of dollars in revenue for the drug industry.
It is quit rare for national TV news to report on any data critical of blockbusters despite plenty of research over the last several decades questioning the risk/benefit profile of numerous commonly used drugs. While one can only speculate, there might be many reasons for why the mainstream TV news is finally reporting problems.
The most likely explanation is that the same drugs now being exposed as unsafe and ineffective have also lost patent protection, and therefore, are no longer generating the huge advertising revenue for the networks. A significant portion of the revenue for the broadcast networks is derived from pharmaceutical advertisements.
It might still be “better late than never” to expose the true risk/benefit profile of blockbuster drugs. However, the millions of patients who have been diligently taking their Lipitor or Prozac daily, and now learn that they have been wasting their time and money, not to mention possibly having been harmed, would be very justified in screaming at their TV sets, “You’re telling me this now?!”
If the mounting evidence linking increased Type 2 diabetes risk to statin use is correct, then tens of millions of patients have developed diabetes as a result of their Lipitor, while at the same time not benefiting from any reduction in mortality. Likewise, if the evidence that the published data supporting the efficacy of antidepressants is skewed because the negative results were never published, and that a sugar pill is just as effective without the risk of increased suicide, per the 60 Minutes story, then millions of depressed patients have been harmed. Making matters worse, a large percentage of those patients prescribed antidepressants are children.
American healthcare is at a watershed period in history. In the United States, total healthcare spending represents almost $3 Trillion a year, or 18% of the entire gross domestic product. America spends more on healthcare than on the entire defense department. There is bipartisan consensus that much of this spending is on wasteful, ineffective, and often harmful, therapies. No drug is without side effects. Few blockbuster drugs have randomized controlled studies supporting use in millions of patients (see hypertext links above).
While the recent trend in national media to finally expose ineffective drugs is long overdue, this type of awareness raising is crucial before the broken congressional machine will ever act to cut healthcare spending. The ACA law (also known as “Obamacare” by many) mandates a $500 Billion cut in Medicare spending, and no progress has been made on that front. The failure of the bipartisan deficit reduction “Super Committee” is supposed to trigger mandatory cuts to Medicare, and even that seems unlikely to happen in an election year. Given the dysfunctional status of our federal government, the national media might be the most powerful force to wrestle the American healthcare monster.
(Dr. Greer is a healthcare sector financial analyst and contributor to MSNBC, Fox News, NPR, Reuters, and The Wall Street Journal.)
Update: February 28, 2012
The FDA update the labels for the class of statin drugs to indicate an increased risk of diabetes, cognitive impairment, and other serious adverse events.