A paper published January 17 in a prestigious medical journal demonstrated in the starkest of terms how pharmaceutical companies tend to publish research that’s favorable to their products and leave unfavorable results tucked away in their files. It’s a problem that everyone outside the industry already recognizes, but the results of this most recent study should really set off alarms.
Led by Dr. Erick Turner of the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland and published in the New England Journal of Medicine , the study took the results of 74 Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-registered trials of antidepressant medications (trials done by the companies that developed the drugs) and compared them with the results that the drug companies published in peer-reviewed medical journals. The study involved 12 antidepressants approved between 1987 and 2004.
In seeking approval of new drugs, companies are required by law to register their clinical trials with the FDA before conducting them, and then report results to the agency when they’re done. Of those 74 trials, the survey found 38 that showed antidepressants to be effective, and all but one of those was duly published. But stunningly, out of 36 trials that showed the drugs to be of questionable or no benefit, the results from only 3 trials were published accurately. Of the rest, 22 were not published at all. All of the other 11 that were published concluded that the drugs did have a positive benefit, in direct contradiction of FDA’s conclusion.
So, in the authors’ words, “studies that the FDA judged as positive were approximately 12 times as likely to be published in a way that agreed with the FDA as were studies with nonpositive results.” And it wasn’t just a matter of holding back results. Trial-by-trial, the beneficial effects of antidepressants as published in medical journals were 18 percent bigger than those recorded in the official FDA data. The authors don’t speculate on how this effectiveness-inflation occurred, but combined with selective publication of positive results, it made antidepressants look a lot better than they really are.
Antidepressants are the most frequently prescribed class of drugs in the US, with about 60,000 prescriptions written every working hour. Encouraged by all those favorable journal papers, doctors tripled their prescription-writing for antidepressants between 1988 and 1998 , and prescriptions had shot up another 31 percent by 2005. The greatest increase has come among doctors who are not psychiatrists. The products have become a convenient way to deal with people who find themselves in rough situations. Soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq are reportedly being given “bags of antidepressants” and upwards of one-third of nursing-home residents are taking antidepressants at any given time. -STAN COX, Counterpunch
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