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Story of deaths concealed

After that I worked on several features about the story and was told authoritatively by one company spokesperson that Healy was an unreliable maverick who was making a big mistake because he didn’t know how to read the data. Healy’s outspokenness came at a personal cost. In the early 2000s an offer of a top job running a psychiatric research unit in the States was pulled following drug company intervention.

However the whole story eventually became a public scandal about five years after my evening with the boxes as the result of a Panorama investigation in 2004 

This revealed that data showing that children were at more risk of committing suicide on the drugs than on a placebo had been hidden for years. It also reported that thousands of web reports of suicide had just been ignored and that far from being totally non-addictive, has had been claimed for a decade, 20% of patients had withdrawal problems.

All of that was bad enough but it soon became clear to me that the failure to warn about serious risks was not a one-off. It was the way companies regularly dealt with such threats to sales.

Shortly after two Panorama investigations into SSRIs it emerged that the makers of the anti-inflammatory painkiller Vioxx had also hidden data, this time about a raised risk of heart disease. Again it had been suspected from the beginning and again academics who spoke out were threatened and intimidated.

Mind the gap

In 2006 I co-authored a book with nutritionist Patrick Holford called “Food is Better Medicine than Drugs”. A novel element for a book about health was that it told readers about some of the dangers that came with blockbuster drugs, information they might not normally hear about when deciding whether a drug or lifestyle approach was the best way to keep them healthy.

As well as describing sagas such as those involving SSRIs and Vioxx, it detailed some of the other techniques drug companies used to market their products more effectively, such giving senior doctors a generous fee to put their names to academic papers that had actually been “ghost written” by company employees.

How company-run trials were four times more likely to report favourable results than ones run by independent researchers. How even when there was good evidence that a non-drug treatment was more effective – such as cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia – patients were far more likely to be treated with drugs.

What drove me to find out more about the shady side of the pharmaceutical industry was a simple journalistic imperative. You know there is a good story when there is a big gap between what a person or an organisation says they are doing and what is actually going on – paedophile priests, bent coppers or billionaires bashing benefit cheats while making extensive use of tax havens. (Read more…)

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  1. Er.. I have looked and not found good evidence for 5-a-day. Tesco believes it though. Reference?


  1. […] of the cheating cases featured in the extract, for instance, are also to be found in “Food is Better Medicine than Drugs”, the book written by myself and one of Ben’s favourite targets Patrick Holford and published way […]

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