In the last couple of months the world’s largest drug company Glaxo Smith Kline was fined 3 billion US dollars. The fine was for promoting its best-selling antidepressant drugs (Paxil and Wellbutrin) for unapproved uses and failing to report safety data for its diabetes drug called Avandia.
Prosecutors in the case said the company had been influencing doctors with international holidays and other gifts in order to win them over. The goal is (of course) to have the doctors prescribe more of their drugs, rather than drugs owned by other companies. Every time a case like this appears, in the United States at least, we, the consumers and patients, see more and more of where medicine is really going. In New Zealand things have not yet reached this level, but drug companies still take doctors out for expensive lunches, to fill them in on the ‘latest research’.
Glaxo Smith Kline’s case is not alone; the list of drug company fines this year is likely to be some kind of a record. Abbot Laboratories was fined 1.6 billion, and Johnson and Johnson may also be fined 2 billion in the coming months due to their marketing of an antipsychotic drug (As reported in the New York Times). All of this is hot on the heels of Merck’s settlement of 5 billion US dollars a couple of years ago for its drug Vioxx, a drug that most patients used to help manage their arthritis pain. Vioxx is something of a standout case with an estimated death toll of around 60,000 people, earning Merck the gold for the highest death count. Think about that number for a second…60,000 dead is more than three times the official death toll in Syria. Usually when you hear of a death toll so large it is referring to something along the lines of genocide in Africa.
One of Glaxo Smith Kline’s drugs, Paxil (as with most antidepressants) has been linked to an increased risk of suicide in adolescents. That simple fact itself is so bizarre that it should make you question the very foundation of modern medicine. Common sense and integrity aside, the Hippocratic Oath that all doctors swear states ‘first do no harm’, so how then, could a drug that increases risk of suicide be given to depressed people?
My healthy cynicism aside, really, who can you trust? The truth is, that even the astonishing fines leveed against drug companies, which, in the case of Glaxo Smith Kline was less than 3% of its market value, are not a sufficient deterrent to stop them lying, cheating and conducting fraudulent research, sometimes resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of people. There are huge numbers of corrupt doctors and scientists involved, and studies have been published in medical journals over the years proving the research published by drug companies is biased. Recently, even the journals (who rely on the drug company business) have been reluctantly speaking out. If you want to read more on this topic, I recommend a book written by Dr Marcia Angel, former editor in chief of the ‘New England Journal of Medicine’, she felt so strongly about the corruption that she published a book called ‘How drug companies lie to you, and what to do about it’. I haven’t the space to go into this in detail, but the list of fraudulent cons in this book is impressive. Dr Angel is a heavy hitter, having once been voted one of Time Magazine’s 25 most influential people in the USA.
While most of this court action occurs overseas, the deaths occur here in NZ as well, as the same drugs are often sold (or were sold) in New Zealand. Dr Wallace Bain, a trained lawyer and pharmacist, and in his capacity as ‘Acting Crown Coroner’, produced a report in 2006 stating that in 1998, 1,524 New Zealanders were killed by adverse reactions to pharmaceutical drugs. He also did an analysis of the supplement industry and could find zero deaths. For some reason 1998 is the last year that detailed statistics of the pharmaceutical death toll are available in New Zealand.
The average Kiwi does not have the time to investigate the drugs prescribed by their doctor, and most GP’s don’t have the time to investigate the claims made by the drug company sales reps. There are some very good GP’s out there who try and keep themselves informed, and there are some who believe everything that drug companies say. My advice with pharmaceutical drugs is simple; the government will never stand up to drug companies, so you have to have to your own homework, and it may well save your life.
Daniel King MSc (hons)