Organic Consumers Association

Campaigning for health, justice, sustainability, peace, and democracy

Ghost in the Machine, Part 1 - Drug Safety and Media Shaped by Big Pharma

If you have noticed that prescription drugs are becoming more dangerous — and more expensive — you are right. As the drug industry’s influence over the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) increases, dangerous drugs are approved and marketed despite their clear risks to patients.

Recent examples include the aggressively promoted blood thinners Xarelto and Pradaxa which cause uncontrollable bleeding, the testosterone drug Androgel, for “Low T” linked to noncalcified plaque buildup in coronary arteries, and fluoroquinolone antibiotics. When warnings are added to these dangerous drugs or they are withdrawn, like 28 popular drugs have been, many wonder why media failed to report the safety risks while they were occurring.1

Of course, the reason is obvious. Mainstream media is essentially owned by the drug industry, so positive messages about new drugs are unfiltered Pharma messages.2 The New York Times has had on its board Schering-Plough and Eli Lilly affiliates and The Washington Post, Johnson & Johnson affiliates.3

Even so-called “public” media like PBS and NPR have accepted money from GlaxoSmithKline and UnitedHealthcare.4 No wonder the dangers of the bone drugs bisphosphonates, hormone replacement therapy, statins, SSRI antidepressants (especially Paxil), heartburn drugs (PPIs), antibiotics such as Levaquin and arthritis drugs like Humira seldom reach the public.

Sadly, when makers of dangerous drugs admit their products caused harm, the settlements usually include gag orders so that new, unwitting victims are no safer. Conflicts of interest are hardly limited to media companies. Government agencies, from the FDA to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also have disturbing financial conflicts of interest that make a mockery out of objectivity.

Yes, the FDA Can Get Worse

When Robert Califf was confirmed in 2016 as FDA Commissioner despite 23 financial links to Pharma and cheerleading for Vioxx and Xarelto, many felt the industry taint at the FDA could not get worse.5 But the likely new FDA Commissioner, venture capitalist Dr. Scott Gottlieb, is so enmeshed with Pharma profits, conflicts of interest at the FDA could definitely get worse. The New York Times reports:6

“From 2013 to 2015, for example, Dr. Gottlieb received more than $150,000 to advise Vertex Pharmaceuticals, a company whose two approved drugs are seen as breakthrough treatments for cystic fibrosis but carry list prices of more than $250,000 a year.

He’s the acting chief executive of Cell Biotherapy, an early-stage cancer biotech firm that he helped found. He has served for years as a consultant to pharmaceutical giants like GlaxoSmithKline and Bristol-Myers Squibb and is paid by other companies for his expertise ...

In 2007, Dr. Gottlieb returned to the private sector, becoming a partner at New Enterprise Associates, where he advised the firm’s health care team, and began consulting for a range of companies. Dr. Gottlieb also held seats on a number of corporate boards, including Tolero Pharmaceuticals, a Utah company working on cancer treatments, and MedAvante, which assists pharmaceutical companies with clinical trials.”

When Gottlieb was first considered for an FDA post as deputy commissioner for medical and scientific affairs in 2005, the then-editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, Jerome Kassirer, said, “Gottlieb has an orientation which belies the goal of the FDA.”7 “The appointment comes out of nowhere,” said former FDA Commissioner Donald Kennedy. “Anything but a reassuring signal,” said Time magazine. And Gottlieb’s financial links to Pharma have only deepened since 2005.

Other Government Conflicts

The military serves as a reliable revenue source for the drug industry thanks to conflicts of interest at the highest levels. In just nine years, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) spent $717 million on risperidone, the generic form of Risperdal, to treat post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) in troops — even though it worked no better than placebo.8

In a video (which has since been taken down), Matthew Friedman, former executive director of the VA's National Center for PTSD, admitted receiving money from drug giant AstraZeneca9 on whose drugs the VA spent $125.4 million in 2009 alone.10 Elspeth Ritchie appeared in a webcast funded by AstraZeneca and Eli Lilly while serving in the U.S. Army Surgeon General's Office, praising the drugs made by the companies.11

Mark Hamner directed PTSD clinical care at Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, South Carolina, while publishing AstraZeneca-funded research about PTSD clinical care.12 Questions also persist about industry relationships at the CDC. According to the BMJ:13

“Despite the agency’s disclaimer, the CDC does receive millions of dollars in industry gifts and funding, both directly and indirectly, and several recent CDC actions and recommendations have raised questions about the science it cites, the clinical guidelines it promotes and the money it is taking ...

The CDC’s director, Tom Frieden, did not respond to a question about the disclaimer. He told The BMJ by email, ‘Public-private partnerships allow CDC to do more, faster.’”

Frieden’s report “looks like classic stealth marketing, in which industry puts their message in the mouth of a trusted third party, such as an academic or a professional organization,” wrote the BMJ’s Jeanne Lenzer. Not-for-profit organizations that work closely with government are also Pharma funded. The National Council on Aging's (NCOA) 2016 corporate sponsors is a who’s who of Pharma companies.14

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