TV Ads for Statins Drive Overdiagnosis and Overtreatment According to Study


Story at-a-glance

  • For the last 16 years, the United States is one of only two countries that allows drugs to be advertised on TV. A new study assessing the effect of direct-to-consumer drug advertising concluded that TV ads for statins may be a driving factor of overdiagnosis of high cholesterol and overtreatment with the drugs
  • Those who reported seeing statin ads on TV were 16-20 percent more likely to be diagnosed with high cholesterol, and 16-22 percent more likely to be using a statin drug
  • Both the diagnosis of high cholesterol and increased statin use was driven almost exclusively by those who were at LOW risk for future cardiac events. Conversely, those at high risk of heart disease were not more likely to be taking a statin after seeing the commercials
  • A previous study showed that pharmaceutical companies spend nearly TWICE as much on marketing in the US as they do on research and development of new drugs, which helps explain why Americans also pay twice as much as other nations for the identical drugs


This is an older article that may not reflect Dr. Mercola’s current view on this topic. Use our search engine to find Dr. Mercola’s latest position on any health topic.

By Dr. Mercola

The United States is one of only two countries, the other being New Zealand, that allows drugs to be advertised on TV, and it’s not difficult to understand why nearly every other country has given such ads the boot.

As with all commercials, the ads are intended to influence you to buy their products. In the case of prescription medications, the “product” is a potentially dangerous chemical drug that is loaded with side effects.

In a 2009 Harris Poll, 51 percent said that drug ads encourage them to ask questions when they go to their doctor, and a whopping 44 percent actually believe drug ads make them more knowledgeable about treatments for their ailments.

Now, a new study assessing the effect of direct-to-consumer drug advertising has concluded that TV ads for statins may be a driving factor of overdiagnosis of high cholesterol and overtreatment with the drugs.1

The reason is clear. People who dutifully ask their doctors about a drug advertised on TV usually end up receiving a prescription...

Is it any wonder then that one in four Americans over the age of 45 is now taking a statin drug, despite the fact that there are over 900 studies proving their adverse effects, which run the gamut from muscle problems to diabetes and increased cancer risk.

Odds are likely greater than 100 to 1 that if you're taking a statin, you don't really need it. The ONLY subgroup that might benefit are those born with a genetic defect called familial hypercholesterolemia, as this makes them resistant to traditional measures of normalizing cholesterol.

TV Ads for Statins Drive Overdiagnosis and Overtreatment

To determine the relationship between estimated exposure to direct-to-consumer advertising for statin drugs and two clinical variables: diagnosis with high cholesterol and statin use, the featured study, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine,2 used logistic regression to analyze repeated cross-sectional surveys of more than 106,000 Americans, merged with data on the frequency of ads appearing on national, cable, and local television, between 2001 and 2007. Interestingly, those who reported seeing statin ads on TV were:

  • 16-20 percent more likely to be diagnosed with high cholesterol
  • 16-22 percent more likely to be using a statin drug

That’s quite a boost in diagnosis and treatment, and proof positive that advertising works, even when you’re selling something with greater potential harms than benefits, as is the case with statins.

Tellingly, both the diagnosis of high cholesterol and increased statin use was driven almost exclusively by those who were at LOW risk for future cardiac events, indicating that overdiagnosis and unnecessary drug treatment is quite real. Conversely, those at high risk of heart disease were not more likely to be taking a statin after seeing the commercials. According to the authors:

"Our findings raise questions about the extent to which direct-to-consumer advertising may promote over-diagnosis and over-treatment for populations where risks may outweigh potential benefits. In addition, we found no evidence of favorable associations between exposure to statins in television advertisements and statin use among those at high risk for future cardiac events."

Turning People into Patients — At YOUR Expense

The 1997 change in direct-to-consumer advertising laws unleashed an avalanche of drug commercials. Two years later, the average American was exposed to nine prescription drug TV ads every day. Between 1994 and 2000, TV drug ads increased 40-fold.3

In 2005, two of the top four most heavily promoted drugs were cholesterol-lowering medications. In that year alone, Merck/Schering-Plough spent $161.5 million on ads for Vytorin, and AstraZeneca spent $158.6 million advertising Crestor — down from the $212 million4 they spent the year before.

In all, pharmaceutical companies spend an estimated $4 billion a year on these types of consumer marketing campaigns in the US, so you can bet they’re getting a hefty portion of this expense back in the form of increased profits.

No doubt you’ve heard that drugs cost so much because it’s expensive to perform research and development of new drugs. Yet pharmaceutical companies spend nearly TWICE as much on marketing in the US as they do on R&D! This finding was published in the journal PloS Medicine in 2008.5 According to the authors:

“From this new estimate, it appears that pharmaceutical companies spend almost twice as much on promotion as they do on R&D. These numbers clearly show how promotion predominates over R&D in the pharmaceutical industry, contrary to the industry's claim.

While the amount spent on promotion is not in itself a confirmation of Kefauver's depiction of the pharmaceutical industry, it confirms the public image of a marketing-driven industry and provides an important argument to petition in favor of transforming the workings of the industry in the direction of more research and less promotion.” [Emphasis mine]

The US is, by far, the largest market for pharmaceuticals in the world, representing around 43 percent of global sales. This is in part due to Americans being grossly overcharged. As I recently reported, Americans pay TWICE the price compared to other countries for the identical drugs.6

Well, here’s part of the answer to the question why: You’re paying for their direct-to-consumer advertising, which is illegal everywhere else (with the exception of New Zealand).

Aside from their inherently misleading nature, and the fact that they dramatically increase drug prices, direct-to-consumer drug ads like those on TV often plant a seed in your mind that you may be sick. Drug companies are masters at disease mongering -- inventing non-existent diseases and exaggerating minor ones, with the end result making you rush to your doctor to request their drug solutions. It also misleads people into thinking drugs are the only option for every ill. If you think about it, a child who grows up seeing these ads is clearly going to be indoctrinated to turn to a drug when something goes wrong, unless he or she receives a different education from some other source.

Effective Statin Ads Place Millions of Americans at Risk of Serious Health Problems

Statins are HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors, that is, they act by blocking the enzyme in your liver that is responsible for making cholesterol (HMG-CoA reductase). The fact that statin drugs cause side effects is well established — there are now 900 studies proving their adverse effects, which run the gamut from muscle problems to increased cancer risk.

Please note that statins are classified as a "pregnancy Category X medication" meaning, it causes serious birth defects, and should NEVER be used by a woman who is pregnant or planning a pregnancy. If it is prescribed, it is simply gross negligence and malpractice.

Statins have also been shown to increase your risk of diabetes, via a number of different mechanisms. The most important one is that they increase insulin resistance, which can be extremely harmful to your health. Increased insulin resistance contributes to chronic inflammation in your body, and inflammation is the hallmark of most diseases.

In fact, increased insulin resistance can lead to heart disease, which, ironically, is the primary reason for taking a cholesterol-reducing drug in the first place. It can also promote belly fat, high blood pressure, heart attacks, chronic fatigue, thyroid disruption, and diseases like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and cancer.

Secondly, statins increase your diabetes risk by actually raising your blood sugar. When you eat a meal that contains starches and sugar, some of the excess sugar goes to your liver, which then stores it away as cholesterol and triglycerides. Statins work by preventing your liver from making cholesterol. As a result, your liver returns the sugar to your bloodstream, which raises your blood sugar levels.

Drug-induced diabetes and genuine type 2 diabetes are not necessarily identical. If you're on a statin drug and find that your blood glucose is elevated, it's possible that what you have is just hyperglycemia — a side effect, and the result of your medication. Unfortunately, many doctors will at that point mistakenly diagnose you with "type 2 diabetes," and possibly prescribe another drug, when all you may need to do is simply discontinue the statin in order for your blood glucose levels to revert back to normal.

Statin drugs also interfere with other biological functions. Of utmost importance, statins deplete your body of CoQ10, which accounts for many of its devastating results. Therefore, if you take a statin, you must take supplemental CoQ10, or better, the reduced form called ubiquinol. Statins also interfere with the mevalonate pathway, which is the central pathway for the steroid management in your body. Products of this pathway that are negatively affected by statins include:

  • All your sex hormones
  • Cortisone
  • The dolichols, which are involved in keeping the membranes inside your cells healthy
  • All sterols, including cholesterol and vitamin D (which is similar to cholesterol and is produced from cholesterol in your skin)

Ninety-Nine Out of 100 People Do Not Need Statin Drugs

That these drugs have proliferated the market the way they have is a testimony to the effectiveness of direct-to-consumer marketing, corruption and corporate greed, because the odds are very high — greater than 1000 to 1 — that if you're taking a statin, you don't really need it. From my review, the ONLY subgroup that might benefit are those born with a genetic defect called familial hypercholesterolemia, as this makes them resistant to traditional measures of normalizing cholesterol.

Even more importantly, cholesterol is NOT the cause of heart disease. If your physician is urging you to check your total cholesterol, then you should know that this test will tell you virtually nothing about your risk of heart disease, unless it is 330 or higher. HDL percentage is a far more potent indicator for heart disease risk. Here are the two ratios you should pay attention to:

  1. HDL/Total Cholesterol Ratio: Should ideally be above 24 percent. If below 10 percent, you have a significantly elevated risk for heart disease.
  2. Triglyceride/HDL Ratio: Should be below 2.

I have seen a number of people with total cholesterol levels over 250 who were actually at low risk for heart disease due to their elevated HDL levels. Conversely, I have seen many people with cholesterol levels under 200 who had a very high risk of heart disease, based on their low HDL. NMR testing is another important new lipid assessment you can now take to determine your risk for heart disease.

Remember, your body NEEDS cholesterol — it is important in the production of cell membranes, hormones, vitamin D and bile acids that help you to digest fat. Cholesterol also helps your brain form memories and is vital to your neurological function. There is also strong evidence that having too little cholesterol INCREASES your risk for cancer, memory loss, Parkinson's disease, hormonal imbalances, stroke, depression, suicide, and violent behavior.

To learn more about statins, please see my special report: Do YOU Take Any of These 11 Dangerous Cholesterol Drugs?

Turn Off the Tube and Tune in to Your Body’s Innate Wisdom

These ads are now on your TV, in magazines and on the Internet, so it’s difficult to eliminate your exposure. What you can do, however, is keep a healthy air of skepticism about you whenever you do see a drug commercial. Really listen to the side effects and ask yourself if cancer is an acceptable risk for a drug to treat an embarrassing skin condition, for example.

If you think you might need the drug, first seek out an unbiased source of information to see if you truly do. The internet can frequently be a helpful tool here.

Also check for the truth about side effects. The average drug comes with a list of 70 potential reactions, according to researchers who used a computer program to analyze 5,600 drug labels. If you take one of the more commonly prescribed drugs, the potential drug reactions rise to about 100 -- and some drugs even carry over 500. Given that, it’s not so surprising that more than 700,000 people visit U.S. emergency rooms each year as a result of adverse drug reactions. Not only that, but according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), adverse drug reactions from drugs that are properly prescribed and properly administered cause about 106,000 deaths per year, making prescription drugs the fourth-leading cause of death in the US.

Polypharmacy Raises Drug Side Effects Exponentially

According to the latest statistics from the Kaiser Health Foundation,7 the average American aged 19 to 64 now takes nearly 12 prescription drugs. The average senior is on 28. The word 'polypharmacy' means "many drugs," and essentially refers to these instances where an individual is taking multiple drugs -- often because more drugs are prescribed than are clinically indicated.

This is a significant problem, as the more drugs you mix together, the greater the chances of serious side effects. And, if the average American is taking a dozen different prescription drugs, and the average prescription drug carries 70 side effects… do the math! That's an average of 770 potential individual side effects but the drug to drug interaction is far higher and is likely one to two orders of magnitude greater. To me, this is simply unacceptable, especially considering that most drugs people take are for conditions that can be better treated, and prevented, using natural methods.

Take Control of Your Health

Anytime you’re considering taking a drug, whether you’ve succumbed to a seductive drug ad or your doctor wants to prescribe one for an ailment you’ve presented, please do remember that you carry the ultimate responsibility here. Don’t trust blindly; ask questions about the drugs prescribed to you, such as:

  • Do I really need this drug?
  • Is it prescribed appropriately, or is it being prescribed for an off-label use?
  • What are the side effects?
  • Is it addictive?
  • What are the natural alternatives?

In the majority of cases, you’ll likely find that you can prevent or resolve the condition not by taking a drug, but by following these basic tenets of optimal health:

  1. Eat a healthy diet focused on fresh, whole foods (ideally organic and/or locally-grown). Try to eat a large portion of your food raw.
  2. You want to pay careful attention to keeping your insulin levels down, which means avoiding sugars and grains of all kinds, and replacing the lost carbs with healthful fats. Also be mindful of your protein sources, making sure they’re of high quality (ideally organically-raised and pasture-fed). A high-fat, moderate protein, low-carb diet is likely to improve the health of most people. My optimized Nutritional Plan can guide you, whether you’re at a beginner’s or advanced level.

  3. Consume healthy fat. The science is loud and clear on this point: omega-3 fats are essential for optimal health. Unfortunately most fish commercially available today are polluted with mercury, PCBs and other toxic substances, which is why I recommend you take a supplement like krill oil instead of getting it from your food. Other healthy fats include coconut oil, avocados, olives, olive oil, butter and macadamia nuts. All these fats are low in protein and carbs and will not impair insulin, leptin or mTOR.
  4. Make clean, pure water your primary beverage, and steer clear of all sweetened and/or flavored beverages, including those that contain artificial sweeteners.
  5. Manage your stress.
  6. Exercise regularly. Ideally, you want a comprehensive fitness regimen that includes stretching, high intensity interval training, core strengthening exercises and strength training.
  7. Get plenty of appropriate sun exposure to optimize your vitamin D levels naturally. UV exposure also has additional health benefits beyond vitamin D production.
  8. A robust and growing body of research clearly shows that vitamin D is absolutely critical for your health. The D*Action project has been initiated by GrassrootsHealth along with 42 leading vitamin D researchers to demonstrate how health can be achieved right now with what’s known about vitamin D with a combination of vitamin D measurement and health outcome tracking. To learn more, please see this recent article.

    I encourage you to participate in the D*Action Project, which has multiple concurrent vitamin D programs going on. Not only will you be able to take control of your own health by participating, you’ll also become part of one of the most profound public health projects of the 21st Century. To participate, simply purchase the D*Action Measurement Kit and follow the registration instructions included. As a participant, you agree to test your vitamin D levels twice a year during a five year program, and share your health status to demonstrate the public health impact of this nutrient. There is a $65 fee each 6 months for your sponsorship of the project, which includes a test kit to be used at home, and electronic reports on your ongoing progress. You will get a follow up email every six months reminding you "it's time for your next test and health survey."

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  9. Limit your exposure to toxins of all kinds. The number of toxic chemicals and their sources is so large, addressing them all could easily require an entire library, but I believe you can help you keep your toxic load as low as possible by becoming an informed and vigilant consumer. This includes tossing out your toxic household cleaners, soaps, personal hygiene products, air fresheners, bug sprays, lawn pesticides, and insecticides, just to name a few, and replacing them with non-toxic alternatives.
  10. Get plenty of quality sleep. Scientists have discovered that your circadian rhythms regulate the energy levels in your cells. In addition, the proteins involved with your circadian rhythm and metabolism are intrinsically linked and dependent upon each other. Therefore, when your circadian rhythm is disrupted, it can have a profound influence on your physical health. For example, research has also linked disrupted sleep cycles to serious health problems like depression, coronary heart diseases, and even cancer.
  11. If you have any kind of sleep problem, whether you’re having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, my article 33 Secrets to a Good Night's Sleep is packed with great tips to help you finally get some good rest.

It Takes Personal Involvement to Stay Healthy in a Sick System

Ultimately, it's your body, and the decision to medicate yourself for an ailment is yours alone. However, I urge you to research any drug your doctor prescribes before you take it. Do not just take your doctor's word for its safety. Most physicians have little information to offer you aside from what they've been told by their drug reps.

Also remember that no drug is completely safe. Even under the BEST circumstances -- such as with a drug that has gone through unbiased, stringent, long-term testing -- anything can happen when a drug is released into the uncontrolled environment of your body. It may interact badly with another drug you're taking, or perhaps a food you eat causes an unforeseen reaction, or maybe your genetic makeup, metabolism or the state of your immune system will cause it to have an unpredictable impact.

Ads are intended to make you want to buy a product — they are NOT public health announcements!

In the case of prescription medications, the “product” is a potentially dangerous chemical that may do more harm than good. This is certainly the case with statins. One in four Americans are now taking a statin, when the odds are greater than 100 to 1 that you don’t need it! Please understand that unless you have familial hypercholesterolemia, you do NOT need a drug to normalize your cholesterol. This can easily be achieved via diet and exercise.


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