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Drugging Ourselves to Death

It seems we keep reading about studies that reveal how beneficial various pharmaceutical drugs are, and how different vitamins do us no good. One reason for this is the very nature of the news business. Every hour the mainstream media strains to get our attention in an environment of information saturation. To draw our eye amid all this chaos, they'll promote anything that's sensational, even if it's not actually sensational at all.

This is what happened in November 2004 when the Annals of Internal Medicine released a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine meta-analysis of vitamin E supplementation.

Researchers analyzed the results of 19 studies in which vitamin E supplements played a role.

Their conclusion: Doses of vitamin E in excess of 400 IU per day may slightly increase the risk of death! The media sent out the sensationalized message that Vitamin E supplements can kill you, with headlines like "Vitamins E Can Be Deadly" and "Vitamin E Dosages May Be Lethal".

Of course, the media left out a few non-sensational but still essential details.

• The 19 studies in the report represented a total of 45 years of research, averaging less than three years per study. Three years means nothing when you're talking about long-term mortality studies.
• The "results" flew in the face of decades of research, using doses up to 2400 IU with excellent results. It appears that "old" research isn't as exciting.
• The subjects in the studies were already at grave risk with existing diseases including cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and kidney failure, so it was inappropriate for the researchers to draw conclusions for the entire population.

Now, what about the other side of the coin? How are pharmaceutical studies reported? By way of example, the big news at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) meeting in early April 2006 was that the non-Steroidal anti-inflammatory drug Celebrex was associated with a significant reduction in occurrence of benign polyps of the colon. The mainstream media presented this as a big advance in preventing colon cancer: "Drug Cuts Risk of Colon Cancer in Two Studies" - Wall Street Journal. "Studies: Celebrex May Stop Colon Cancer" - ABC News. "Celebrex May Lower Colon Cancer Risk" - Fox News.

These headlines are a blatant exaggeration of the facts. Celebrex was shown to lower the occurrence of colon polyps, but be aware that reducing the incidence of colon polyps cannot be directly equated with preventing colon cancer. There are still many uncertainties about the practical value of preventing polyps in this way. Also, the fact that some of the patients who took Celebrex developed colon cancer anyway cannot be overlooked. So despite the headlines, Celebrex hasn't been proven to prevent colon cancer. That wasn't even the purpose of the studies. Furthermore, Celebrex was shown in these trials to have serious toxicity.
Cancer Prevention No, Increased Risk to heart Attack Yes

Caution is definitely advised when dealing with this class of drugs. Readers may recall that Merck withdrew the very similar drug Vioxx from pharmacy shelves in 2004, after clinical trials indicated that patients taking that drug for 18 months were twice as likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke as the general population. Like Vioxx, Celebrex was shown to cause heart attacks and strokes, especially in those patients with any cardiovascular risk factors. Yet the fact that Celebrex causes very serious adverse effects - sufficiently serious that they triggered the early termination of one of these trials - was downplayed by many reports in the mainstream media. If all seems like a desperate attempt to rehabilitate this discredited category of drugs by associating Celebrex, the last remaining COX-2 inhibitor on the market, with the universally desired goal of preventing colon cancer.

Why does it seem that so many people (doctors and patients alike) believe that drugs are the answer to all our health problems? The statistics are dismal - North American health-care spending has gone up by 73% over the past five years, but we are last in healthy life expectancy among the 21 major industrialized countries. What gives?

Follow the Money...Again

According to Dr. John Abramson, author of Overdosed America: The Broken Promise of American Medicine (Harper Perennial), health care in America is going in the wrong direction. He says much of the reason has to do with drug companies.

Dr. Abramson Says, "The first thing people can do to improve their health and protect themselves from distorted health care is to understand the information about drugs and health is being brought to them and to the doctors by the drug companies, because of it's commercial value. the fundamental purpose of that information is to improve corporate profits, not to improve our health."
Dr. Abramson believes that many drugs are over-prescribed and that the focus on specific measures, such as high cholesterol, deprives doctors of the opportunity to talk with their patients about practices that have been repeatedly shown in research to improve health and reduce risk for heart disease and other killers - things like exercising, quitting smoking, and other lifestyle changes. Such changes are far cheaper than drugs and usually better for you in the long run. The problem is that there aren't any companies making money from your lifestyle changes. In fact some, like tobacco companies, will lose money.

It won't surprise you to find out that of the Celebrex studies mentioned above, there were actually two separate trials, and that the first was sponsored by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and Pfizer (the manufacturer of Celebrex), while the second was sponsored entirely by Pfizer.
References
Health Sciences Institute e-Alert, November 16, 2004
The Moss Reports Newsletter, April 23, 2006
Daily Health News, March 14, 2006

 

 

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