Drug companies were accused yesterday of conning the public by hyping-up patented medicines with little new to offer while downplaying their side-effects.
An estimated 85% of new drugs offer few if any new benefits while having the potential to cause serious harm due to toxicity or misuse, a study has concluded.
The author of the research delivered a damning attack on “Big Pharma” at a meeting in the US. Professor Donald Light described the pharmaceutical industry as a “market for lemons” – where the seller knows much more than the buyer about the product, and takes advantage of this.
“Sometimes drug companies hide or downplay information about serious side- effects of new drugs and overstate the drugs’ benefits,” said Prof Light, of the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey, US.
He added: “Then, they spend two to three times more on marketing than on research to persuade doctors to prescribe these new drugs. Doctors may get misleading information and then misinform patients about the risks of a new drug. ”
Companies were assisted by the “relatively low bar” for effectiveness that had to be crossed to get a new drug approved, he claimed.
Prof Light presented his paper, entitled Pharmaceuticals: A Two-Tier Market for Producing Lemons and Serious Harm yesterday at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia.
The study includes data gathered from independent reviewers which suggest that 85% of new drugs provide few, if any, new benefits.
Yet toxic side-effects and misuse of prescription drugs had made medicines a significant cause of death, said Prof Light.
Physicians inadvertently became “double agents” – promoters of the new drug, yet trusted stewards of patients’ health.
When patients complained of adverse reactions, studies showed doctors were likely to discount or dismiss them, said Prof Light.
But Dr Richard Barker, director general of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), which represents more than 70 UK drug companies, said: “This is a theory of information asymmetry based on what I would call the blindingly obvious, that doctors and regulators know more about medicines than the average patient.
“Prof Light is saying that as a result of that, companies produce sub-standard medicines that nobody needs. He concludes that some sort of conspiracy is going on, but it just isn’t true.
“The pharmaceutical industry has to tell the regulators everything that’s disclosed in the trials of their medicines, and the facts of the trial and results are now made publicly available.
“Patients can, if they want, go and find the information out.
“Secondly, the industry has just agreed to take all their negative findings to journals to see if they will publish them.
“In my opinion the industry is doing all it can to be transparent about trial results.”