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New Jersey Public Interest Research Group Identifies Major Threat to Public Health

The Problem: Deceptive Drug Marketing Endangers Patients

Drug marketers’ main concern is selling drugs, not your health. Sales are hurt if doctors perceive a drug as dangerous or of limited value. Thus drug marketers have a strong incentive to present their drugs as safe or more effective than they really are. The NJPIRG report, “Turning medicine into Snake Oil. How Drug Marketers Put Patients at Risk” documents the problem in detail. From 2001 to 2005 the FDA sent 85 different drug companies at least 170 letters to drug marketers telling them their advertising was false or misleading. Those letters, which NJPIRG analyze in the report, are available at http://www.fda.gov/cder/warn/warn2005.htm. The NJPIRG report found that over 2/3 of the deceptive messages aimed at doctors misrepresented risks or promoted unproven uses. Because both of these types of messages distort the risk/benefit analysis, they put lives at risk.

In addition to the FDA letters, the NJPIRG report surveyed the existing literature to identify deceptive marketing problems that were largely outside the scope of the FDA letters. One of the most disturbing types of deceptive marketing that largely escapes FDA notice is the suppression and misrepresentation of clinical trial data, the fundamental science that underpins pharmaceutical medicine. In addition to outright data suppression, drug marketers influence clinical trial design to ensure the only the “right” questions are asked, and employ PR firms to write the first drafts of clinical trial reports and thereby control their spin. The PR firm’s ghostwriting is not acknowledged in the final reports. By distorting the underlying scientific data set, drug marketers put lives at risk. Several recent drug scandals illustrate just how far the marketers are willing to go, most vividly, Vioxx, OxyContin, Paxil, Accutane, Neurontin. The marketing of each of these drugs are presented as case studies in the NJPIRG report.