Selling Sickness

How the World's Biggest Pharmaceutical Companies are Turning us All into Patients

Monday, May 30, 2005

Article on Selling Sickness: Drug Companies 'talk up' ailments

Drug companies 'talk up' ailments
Sid Maher

AUSTRALIA'S health system is wasting up to $100 million a year prescribing expensive, patented blood-pressure drugs instead of older, cheaper medicines found to be just as effective by scientific studies.The claim is contained in a new book, Selling Sickness, which accuses pharmaceutical companies of talking up the effects of common complaints to create new markets.

"The marketing strategies of the world's biggest drug companies now aggressively target the healthy and the well," argue Australian writer Ray Moynihan and his Canadian co-author Alan Cassels.

"The ups and downs of daily life have become mental disorders, complaints are transformed into frightening conditions and more and more ordinary people are turned into patients."
Selling Sickness says a national awareness campaign on menopause in 2000 was funded by the drug giant Wyeth, which markets hormone replacement therapy.

But the campaign promoting HRT did not mention studies that showed a risk of blood clots to women on the regime and evidence that HRT, rather than cutting heart attack risk, actually increased it in a tiny number of cases.

The book also says the volume of anti-depressant prescriptions tripled between 1990 and 2000, while among 15- to 24-year-olds prescription rates had increased tenfold.

The authors cite studies that argue that spending on high blood-pressure medication could be cut by one quarter if physicians stuck to cheaper therapies.

"It has become clear from the solid scientific evidence ... that collectively the world is wasting billions on the most expensive blood-pressure drugs," the book says.

A major study funded by the US Government found the oldest, cheapest blood-pressure drugs, low-dose diuretics (or thiazides) not only did as well as the newer ones at lowering the chances of heart attacks and strokes, but came out marginally ahead because they were slightly better at preventing heart failure.

"On the question of cost, the old drugs won hands down, because they are off patent and available as generics; treatment with these pills is so low it is almost free," the book says.
Curt Furberg, a key researcher in the study, which compared the old and new drugs and was published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, argued that the findings were dwarfed by the promotional machine of the drug companies.

In 2003, sales of Pfizer's popular blood pressure drug Norvasc reached almost $US5billion ($6.5billion), making it the fourth-biggest revenue-generating drug in the world.

Kieran Schneemann, chief executive of pharmaceutical industry body Medicines Australia, was unavailable for comment.