And 5 critical steps for separating scientific fact from media-hyped fiction
It takes a lot to make a great big business like big pharma. You have to influence the scientific and medical establishments. You have to lobby government regulators like the FDA. And you have to persuade the media.
One key way big pharma does all this is by controlling the research. Either by sponsoring studies themselves and/or by manipulating how the findings are presented.
That’s right—many of the supposedly “unbiased” scientific studies you read about in the lame-stream media are actually rigged in favor of the drugs big pharma peddles.
How does big pharma get away with this? First of all, the media rarely has the initiative (let alone the competence) to really dig into scientific data. So they often rely on press releases—issued by none other than the pharmaceutical companies themselves.
Secondly, most doctors don’t have the time to read pages and pages of new scientific research. In fact, a 2001 American Medical Association membership survey revealed that a whopping 91 percent of all doctors do not get their current information from medical journals. Instead, they rely on drug company salespeople to deliver the latest scientific “news.”
So more often than not, a doctor can be counted on to parrot the latest spin from big pharma when it comes to your health.
And if that weren’t troubling enough, dozens of pharmaceutical companies even sponsor nonprofit front groups like Research!America.1 These groups lobby for more government funding for studies that—you guessed it—supply basic research for big pharma. All while purportedly representing the interests of the citizens.
Unfortunately, these aren’t the only underhanded tactics big pharma uses to influence public perception.
7 more tricks big pharma has up its sleeve
At the turn of the 20th century, Frank Norris published The Octopus, about the monopoly over wheat production and distribution by the railroads. And a few years later, Upton Sinclair published The Jungle about the practices of the meatpacking industry. These two “muck-rucking” exposes about our daily meat and bread, literally, motivated President Theodore Roosevelt to exercise reforms, including the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, which became today’s FDA.
One hundred years later, the Octopus has become big pharma, extending its tentacles into every aspect of “public health”: the medical profession, the Congressional and Executive Branches of government (by way of legions of high-paid lobbyists and the FDA, respectively), and the medical and mainstream media.
Especially the media.
You see, big pharma employs a legion of medical writers, many of them freelancers, to prepare and present their bidding to the public. I was invited by the American Medical Writers Association to give the keynote speech at their annual convention in Atlanta on my 40th birthday. I spoke about the importance of history in understanding the status of health and medicine today. But it seemed to me that the majority of the work available for “medical writers” was from big pharma.
So, here are some of the dirty tricks big pharma uses to present “new medical information” to the public.
Telling only part of the story. Nearly one-third of all clinical drug trials are never made public—often because the research actually shows that the drugs either don’t work or have serious side effects.2 Tamiflu is a perfect example. A whopping 90 percent of the studies on this toxic flu drug were never published (see the Daily Dispatch “The game is over for Roche and Tamiflu”* for more).
Disguising marketing as research. Big pharma likes to brag about how much of its budget is spent on research and development. Of course, pharmaceutical companies have been known to disguise marketing schemes as legitimate scientific drug studies.
A notorious example is the “research” behind Vioxx, the deadly arthritis drug manufactured by Merck, one of the biggest of the big pharma companies. Merck’s marketing division actually conducted the so-called scientific study that was given to doctors to prove the drug was safe.3
No wonder Vioxx turned out to be a deadly disaster.
Ghostwriting. Even when a legitimate study is presented as “independent,” it may actually be conducted by drug companies and then published under a doctor’s name.
But what about university-published research?
Big pharma, as well as the chemical industry and the food industry, all fund many public and private universities. This money goes toward everything from university-wide endowments to research labs and positions. (To follow this money trail even further, refer back to the Daily Dispatch “A sad state of scientific affairs.”) Rampant conflicts of interest are common in today’s corrupt higher education university system. So it’s hardly a surprise when these “independent” university researchers publish studies in big pharma’s favor.
Using only “perfect” study participants. The design of some so-called “gold-standard” clinical drug trials routinely excludes participants who may be most at risk for dangerous side effects. Plus, it regularly includes only those people who are most likely to show some benefit from the drug.
This practice helps explain why so many drugs are found to be toxic only after they are approved by the FDA and released upon millions of unsuspecting people.
And you probably won’t be shocked to hear that many side effects only get revealed when a drug’s patent is about to expire. Case in point: Ambien. In 2013, a government agency reported that this sleeping pill was sending record numbers of people to the emergency room.4 The report came out 11 years after the FDA approved Ambien.
The “perfect person” trick is also used for some studies on nutrients and dietary supplements. Researchers only choose people who are optimally nourished to begin with. So of course the nutrient or supplement shows little effect on these already healthy people. And big pharma certainly makes sure you hear about these sorts of results—or lack thereof—from the media.
Dosing flaws. Speaking of research on dietary supplements, researchers often insist on using the woefully inadequate government “recommended” doses in their studies. No surprise—the research subsequently concludes the supplements don’t work.
An example: In 2013, Annals of Internal Medicine published an editorial titled “Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements.”5 This blanket dismissal was based on only three studies that used ridiculously low doses, not to mention pathetic, poor-quality big pharma daily multivitamins. (And see the vitamin E feature on page X for another example.)
As I’ve emphasized many times before, dietary supplements are designed to supplement a reasonably well-balanced diet. Yet many studies don’t even bother to determine the diet and nutritional status of study participants in the first place. Other studies are based on imaginary dietary intakes determined by wholly inadequate research methods like dietary recalls, and dietary surveys. (And, with apologies to Philip K Dick and Arnold Schwarzneggar, these methods are far from “total recall”).
As I explained back in July 2012 (in the Daily Dispatch “Garbage in, garbage out”), these research methods are totally inadequate. And the NIH has known about this real “dietary deficiency” in their research for decades. But the careerist nutritional statisticians in charge of this garbage are apparently too threatened to have anyone around who really knows anything about human biology, diet, and nutrition. And, sadly. this problem extends to the government agency in charge of investigating nutritional and natural approaches—the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, or NCCAM. (See the October 15, 2012 Daily Dispatch “NCCAM fails at most basic mission.”*).
Rushing the research. Many studies are designed for only short periods of time—not long enough for permanent drug damage to emerge. And often not long enough to observe the full benefits of diet, nutrition, and dietary supplements.
Cherry-picking the data. A study can reach multiple conclusions, but big pharma press releases typically only highlight the most positive findings. Or there might be dueling studies, and only the one that best suits the pre-established agenda gets the attention of the media.
For instance, a 2013 study of only six people (and some lab rats) proclaimed that eating red meat may lead to heart disease.6 Meanwhile, a much larger study showed the exact opposite.7 Guess which study got the headlines?
Probably the single worst example of all of the above tricks was a 2013 study proclaiming that not only does fish oil do nothing for your heart, but it also causes cancer. Those of us who really know the truth could only shake our heads. (See “What you REALLY need to know about fish, omega-3s, and prostate cancer risk” in the October 2013 issue of Insiders’ Cures.*)
Of course, considering big pharma spends an astounding $27 billion a year to promote its drugs, it’s no wonder that we’re barraged with “research” that is questionable at best—and unconscionable at worst.8
5 steps for separating scientific fact from big pharma fiction
So how do you know if a study is truly reliable?
Well, there are a few things you should always watch out for when it comes to reading the popular headlines:
1. Who is paying for the study? If it’s not disclosed in the article, beware.
2. Is it just an epidemiological-statistical study? Or are some real doctors and clinical observations involved? Epidemiological studies are designed to examine associations within a population. They can never prove causation in an individual.
3. Is there a lot of “number crunching” involved in presenting the data? Or can the results be stated in simple terms? As Mark Twain oft quoted, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”
4. Is the reporter writing about the study a qualified science journalist? They seem to be a dying breed. But there are still a few at the better papers and news channels.
5. Are the “experts” being quoted actually qualified? This deficiency is often a real problem when it comes to reporting on alternative, complementary, and natural-medicine topics. Beware of regular physicians who have just “discovered” truths about nutrition and natural healing that would have been known to anthropologists and biologists for decades.
And of course, at the end of the day, you can always just stick with me.
I’ll separate the scientific facts from big pharma’s fiction for you—and show you what you really need to know for good health.
*Previous Daily Dispatches and issues of Insiders’ Cures can be downloaded for free on the website.
1 Research!America. Members and Supporters. http://www.researchamerica.org/members_supporters#4. Accessed May 2, 2014.
2 Jones, CW, et al. Non-publication of large randomized clinical trials: cross sectional analysis. BMJ 2013;347:f6104.
3 Hill, KP, et al. The ADVANTAGE Seeding Trial: A Review of Internal Documents. Ann Intern Med. 2008;149(4):251-258. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-149-4-200808190-00006.
4 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Emergency Department Visits for Adverse Reactions Involving the Insomnia Medication Zolpidem. http://www.samhsa.gov/data/2k13/DAWN079/sr079-Zolpidem.htm. Accessed May 2, 2014.
5 Guallar, E, et al. Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements. Ann Intern Med. 2013;159(12):850-851. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-159-12-201312170-00011.
6 Koeth, RA, et al. Intestinal microbiota metabolism of L-carnitine, a nutrient in red meat, promotes atherosclerosis. Nature Medicine 19, 576–585 (2013) doi:10.1038/nm.3145.
7 . DiNicolantonio, JJ, et al. L-Carnitine in the Secondary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Mayo Clinic Proceedings Volume 88, Issue 6, Pages 544–551, June 2013.
8 The Pew Charitable Trusts. Persuading the Prescribers: Pharmaceutical Industry Marketing and its Influence on Physicians and Patients. http://www.pewhealth.org/other-resource/persuading-the-prescribers-pharmaceutical-industry-marketing-and-its-influence-on-physicians-and-patients-85899439814. Accessed May 2, 2014.