By Dr. Mercola
When it comes to making health care decisions, which can deeply impact your life, you need access to truthful, unbiased information and science, or at least access to a physician who does.
Yet true, independent research -- the foundation upon which the modern medical system is supposed to be based -- is becoming an increasingly rare commodity … if it's not already extinct.
In a scathing expose in Scientific American,1 journalism professor Charles Seife shows very clearly how the pharmaceutical industry is funneling money to prominent research scientists conducting studies on their products, and no one – not the researchers, not their funding sources, not scientific institutions and not even the government – appears able (or willing) to stop it.
Massive Conflicts of Interest are Ruining Medical Science
It's well known that studies funded by industry or conducted by researchers with industry ties tend to favor corporate interests. That's why it probably comes as no surprise that many so-called "experts" are very much on the drug industry's payroll -- but they masquerade as independent medical experts or even state officials during their "day jobs."
It is, by the way, 100% legal for drug companies to pay medical professionals to promote their products.
The conflict of interest within this practice is obvious, which is why the drug industry often keeps quiet on their actual payments, as do the medical professionals involved. Although many medical, educational and research institutions require faculty members to disclose such potential conflicts of interest, many do not actively monitor employees' activities.
"The entanglements between researchers and pharmaceutical companies take many forms. There are speakers bureaus: a drugmaker gives a researcher money to travel — often first class — to gigs around the country, where the researcher sometimes gives a company-written speech and presents company-drafted slides.
There is ghostwriting: a pharmaceutical manufacturer has an article drafted and pays a scientist (the 'guest author') an honorarium to put his or her name on it and submit it to a peer-reviewed journal. And then there is consulting: a company hires a researcher to render advice.
Researchers 'think what these companies are after are their brains, but they're really after the brand,' says Marcia Angell, former editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine. 'To buy a distinguished, senior academic researcher, the kind of person who speaks at meetings, who writes textbooks, who writes journal articles — that's worth 100,000 salespeople.'"
Are You Receiving Medical Advice That's Been Tainted by Drug Company Money?
If you've visited a physician lately, the answer is quite likely "yes." You see, the compromised research doesn't simply stay in the medical journals … it often gets translated into your medical care. It is based on these purportedly scientific results that drugs get approved and public health recommendations are made.
Take Avandia, the diabetes drug that is now known to have killed tens of thousands of people and significantly increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. Research from the Mayo Clinic revealed that 90 percent of scientists who wrote favorable articles about the drug had financial ties to GlaxoSmithKline, the drug's maker.2 A committee of independent experts still recommended that Avandia remain on the market, despite its clear risks, and a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversight board voted 8 to 7 to accept the advice.
Well, "it came out that members of the committee, too, had been taking money from drug companies," Seife reported.
This is, of course, but one example. There are, unfortunately, countless others. Eight of the nine doctors on the panel that developed the 2004 cholesterol guidelines, which are still in use today, had been making money from the drug companies that manufacture statin cholesterol-lowering drugs -- wouldn't you know it, the same drugs the new guidelines suddenly created a dramatically larger market for in the United States.
Researchers and certainly those who sit on government panels are supposed to disclose these types of relationships with the drug industry, but they often don't and little is done about it. According to the investigative report:
"Several layers of checking are supposed to ensure that conflicts of interest are caught and exposed even when an oblivious or dishonest researcher does not report them. When a scientist fails to report such a conflict, the university or hospital he or she works for is supposed to spot it and report it. And when a university or hospital is not doing its job catching conflicted research, then the government agency that funds most of that research — the National Institutes of Health — is supposed to step in.
Unfortunately, that backup system is badly broken. "Institutions often look the other way, or they have policies in place that are quite weak," says Adriane Fugh-Berman, a professor in Georgetown University's department of pharmacology and physiology."
The NIH May be One of the Worst Offenders...
Government funding is supposed to be neutral -- an independent source from which unbiased scientific research can be drawn. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is actually the second-highest funding source for drug studies (first is the drug companies, themselves). Many assume NIH-funded studies are unbiased and funded strictly through taxpayer dollars, but NIH accepts a great deal of money from Big Pharma and is deeply enmeshed with the industry.
For instance, two leaders from the NIH — Gary Nabel, one of the NIH's most prominent researchers in the Vaccine Research Center (VRC) and Elias Zerhouni, former director of the entire NIH) recently switched sides to work for Big Pharma (specifically, Sanofi). So this might help explain why Seife uncovered that several individuals working on NIH advisory committees were granted waivers exempting them from ethics laws (even though they had received thousands of dollars from drug companies, which were not disclosed on the waivers).
In the fall of 2003, the NIH -- with Zerhouni at its head – also faced grave accusations when it came to light that hundreds of its scientists had financial ties to the medical and pharmaceutical industries. According to a 2004 article in the NIH Record, over 100 scientists did not get approval for their industry activities, even though the rules were so loose virtually all requests to conduct outside work were approved by the agency, without any limits on compensation or hours worked for outside entities.
The NIH is not unique in these ties. Joining a parade of other high-ranking government officials who passed through the revolving doors between government and Big Pharma, in January 2010 Julie Gerberding, former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which makes the U.S. immunization schedule, became the president of Merck's vaccine unit, which makes 14 of the 17 pediatric vaccines recommended by the CDC, and 9 of the 10 recommended for adults.
Even Your Physician May be on the Drug Industry's Payroll
I suspect many Americans would be surprised to learn that many thousands of doctors, researchers and other medical experts – some of whom you probably depend on to provide unbiased information and advice pertaining to your health care – receive large amounts of supplemental income from drug companies, but it is reality nonetheless.
In many cases, these individuals do not believe the relationship influences their medical advice, research or prescribing habits -- although clearly the drug industry would not continue devoting millions of dollars to this type of marketing if it did not pay off. But even prominent researchers and expert physicians are often being influenced by the industry, whether they realize it or not.
I speak from experience because, in fact, I used to be one of those lecturers. I was hired as a "rising star" shortly after I finished my residency training in 1985 and flew across the country lecturing on estrogen replacement therapy, and receiving handsome checks from the drug companies for doing so.
I stopped this nearly 30 years ago when I realized that the entire approach was a scam. Fifteen years later all the major studies came out showing that estrogen replacement therapy radically increased heart disease and cancer, and did not prevent it like the drug industry's manipulated studies suggested.
Currently there are tens of thousands of U.S. physicians and researchers who have replaced my lecturing role and are currently on Big Pharma's payroll. An ongoing investigation by ProPublica3 revealed that 12 drug companies paid $761.3 million to physicians for consulting, speaking, research and other expenses in 2009, 2010 and, for some, the beginning of 2011 -- and that represents only the disclosed payments. In all actuality, this figure is probably far too low.
More Transparency in the Medical Field is Coming in 2013
Thanks to the Physician Payments Sunshine Act, which starts in 2013, drug companies and medical device manufacturers will be required to reveal most of the money they are giving to physicians. Starting in 2013, you will be able to determine if a health care provider you trust is actually on the drug industry's payroll, thanks to the new federal law, which mandates the following:
- Drug and medical device companies will be required to report and disclose all payments (including stock options, research grants, knickknacks, consulting fees, travel expenses and more) to physicians (March 2013). Unfortunately, payments to nurses, physician assistants, and other medical professionals will not have to be disclosed
- The information will be displayed in an online government database that you will be able to search (September 2013)
In the meantime, you can search ProPublica's database4 to see the disclosed payments made to physicians in your state. Many of the most prestigious universities, including Harvard, are now banning their staff from receiving money from drug companies for speaking, and this new disclosure requirement will hopefully push more institutions in that direction.
Breaking the drug industry's stranglehold on the conventional medical industry will not be easy -- after all, the drug industry spends nearly twice as much on promotion5 as it does on research and development – but increasing numbers of people are now waking up to these harsh realities, and that is instrumental in getting the tide to turn. You, being among those who are informed, can help share this knowledge with others. More than 1.5 million people receive this newsletter, and together we can make a huge difference.
The ultimate goal is to have a critical mass of people refuse the unnecessarily dangerous and counterproductive solutions currently offered by conventional medicine, as this will be the powerful stimulus to generate authentic change. You can also act now, on a personal level, by making the necessary lifestyle changes that will allow you to take control of your health, instead of leaving it in the hands of the drug industry who has likely manipulated and deceived the physician you are consulting with.