A month of bad news for overhyped drugs
The brand-name pharmaceutical industry constantly pushes the myth that its expensive blockbusters are breakthrough treatments that greatly increase people’s health and well-being, and thus are worth the high price-tag. That myth has more holes than a slice of swiss cheese, yet they keep pushing it on the American public like it’s one of their drugs.
As Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and author of “The Truth About the Drug Companies” (see an interview with Dr. Angell in PAL’s newsletter here) famously said, “Important new drugs do not need much promotion. Me-too drugs do.” So drugs which offer little breakthrough in treatment need to be (over)hyped.
For years, the drug industry has touted antidepressants (particularly SSRIs – Selective Serontin Reuptake Inhibitors — Prozac, Paxil, Wellbutrin, Zoloft, Celexa, Lexapro, etc. as one of its major successes. Yet, this week, a major meta-analysis (a study that reviews the full range of studies and articles on a particular drug) was published in the open-access medical journal PLoS (Public Library of Science) Medicine. That article concluded that, for the majority of patients, SSRI antidepressants are barely better than a placebo.
It’s likely that patients in the U.S. (and their health plans, and government health care programs like Medicare, Medicaid, the Veterans Administration, the military health care plan Tri-Care, etc) have spent tens of billions of dollars on antidepressants in the past decade, despite the fact that for many of them, it was likely a waste of money, exposed them to the risk of side effects, and may have resulted in their not availing themselves of other non-pharmaceutical options for treating their depression.
The billions that the industry spent on marketing these drugs, both to consumers and to doctors, led millions to believe that relief was just a pill away (We gave the makers of Paxil, one of these antidepressants, one of our Bitter Pill Awards in 2005, the Cure for the Human Condition Award: For Hawking Pills to Treat the Trials of Everyday Life).
Drugs for depression are just one of numerous groups of drugs for which the benefits are overhyped and people for whom an expensive drug is unnecessary or overkill are convinced to take it in lieu of something cheaper, that’s been around longer and whose risks and benefits are more well known.
“Statin” drugs for reducing high cholesterol are another group of drugs that have been massively overhyped, and that also have been in the news a great deal lately. Last month, the results of a study of Schering-Plough and Merck’s combination-cholesterol drug Vytorin, the ENHANCE study, were released, showing that it offered no benefit over simvastatin (Zocor), a statin that last year went generic. Vytorin is a combination of Zocor and Zetia, which is also sold by itself. Vytorin and Zetia together have more than $5 billion in sales.
Statin drugs have also been in the news because of the revelation that Dr. Robert Jarvik, Pfizer’s boat-rowing pitchman for Lipitor, is not a licensed physician, cannot write a prescription for Lipitor or any drug for that matter, and is not even a rower (a stunt double was used in the Lipitor ads). We’ve blogged about Jarvik-gate here on several occasions, including proposing some other famous “doctors” who aren’t licensed physicians that Pharma ought consider using as paid flaks — including Dr. Teeth from the Muppets, Basketball legend Dr. J, Dr. Nick Riviera from the Simpsons, and New Orleans musical legend Dr. John).
Of course, the real Lipitor story is not Dr. Robert Jarvik and his rowing and prescribing credentials. At best, he’s a bit player in this drama. The real story is how incredibly overhyped Lipitor is. Pfizer boasts it’s the “most powerful” statin as though that means that everyone with high cholesterol should be on it. But for many (perhaps most) people with high cholesterol, using Lipitor is like using a chainsaw to cut paper instead of scissors: that is, unnecessary overkill. Members of the PAL coalition filed a lawsuit against Pfizer in 2005, alleging that Lipitor had been overhyped and promoted to patients for whom it offered no benefit, and we gave them and AstraZeneca, the makers of Crestor, a Bitter Pill Award in 2006: The “Got Cholesterol?” Award: For Overpromoting Expensive Brand-Name Statins.
But even that’s not the real story — there are larger questions about statins. For instance, does lowering your cholesterol translate into a lower risk of heart attack or heart deaths on January 17 was Do Cholesterol Drugs Do Any Good? Research suggests that, except among high-risk heart patients, the benefits of statins such as Lipitor are overstated.
Here are a few choice excerpts:
[Statins] are the best-selling medicines in history, used by more than 13 million Americans and an additional 12 million patients around the world, producing $27.8 billion in sales in 2006. Half of that went to Pfizer for its leading statin… The second crucial point is hiding in plain sight in Pfizer’s own Lipitor newspaper ad. The dramatic 36% figure has an asterisk. Read the smaller type. It says: “That means in a large clinical study, 3% of patients taking a sugar pill or placebo had a heart attack compared to 2% of patients taking Lipitor.”
Now do some simple math. The numbers in that sentence mean that for every 100 people in the trial, which lasted 3 1/3 years, three people on placebos and two people on Lipitor had heart attacks. The difference credited to the drug? One fewer heart attack per 100 people. So to spare one person a heart attack, 100 people had to take Lipitor for more than three years. The other 99 got no measurable benefit. Or to put it in terms of a little-known but useful statistic, the number needed to treat (or NNT) for one person to benefit is 100.
Compare that with, say, today’s standard antibiotic therapy to eradicate ulcer-causing H. pylori stomach bacteria. The NNT is 1.1. Give the drugs to 11 people, and 10 will be cured.
A low NNT is the sort of effective response many patients expect from the drugs they take. When Wright and others explain to patients without prior heart disease that only 1 in 100 is likely to benefit from taking statins for years, most are astonished. Many, like Winn, choose to opt out…
NNTs are the “dirty little secret” of the world of prescription drugs. And a perfect illustration of how hyping drugs through advertising to consumers and marketing to doctors (through the 100,000 salespeople employed by drug companies, self-serving biased clinical trials and corporate-influenced “continuing medical education”) doesn’t benefit patients. As the article says,
The truth about drugs’ effectiveness wouldn’t be as worrisome if consumers and doctors had an accurate picture of the state of knowledge and could make rational decisions about treatments. Studies by Darlington Hospital’s Trewby, UBC’s Wright, and others, however, show that patients expect far more than what the drugs actually deliver…
The whole statin story is a classic case of good drugs pushed too far, argues Dr. Howard Brody, professor of family medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. The drug business is, after all, a business. Companies are supposed to boost sales and returns to shareholders. The problem they face, though, is that many drugs are most effective in relatively small subgroups of sufferers. With statins, these are the patients who already have heart disease. But that’s not a blockbuster market. So companies have every incentive to market their drugs as being essential for wider groups of people, for whom the benefits are, by definition, smaller.
Finally, an excellent piece posted today on Alternet examines the statin and cholesterol controversy in detail: The Cholesterol Con — Where Were the Doctors?