Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Pack Rat

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Pack Rat

Article excerpt

TAKIN' US FOR DOPES?

Prescribing heavy-duty doses of public relations, America's drug companies have the press dizzy from the spin

On April 1, 1998, a front-page story in USA Today trumpeted "Study: No heart damage from diet drug." Just a few months earlier, the diet drugs Pondimin (the "fen" in the "fen-phen" combination) and Redux (a "new, improved" version of Pondimin) had been taken off the market at the urging of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The New York Times and other papers gave space and happy headlines to this story. Since about 7 million people took the drugs from 1994 to 1997 and could be affected, this was good news. Or was it?

In writing a book about the fen-phen scandal, I learned a lot from the files of Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories about the use of medical studies as public relations, the targeting of specific newspapers and media outlets, and the relevance of positive medical studies to a company's status with Wall Street. It's prompted discussions between health writers and me about the importance of disclosing ties between the studies' sponsors, and about doing more than rewriting a joyous press release.

At USA Today, reporter Steve Sternberg recalled he was "appropriately skeptical." The report had been presented at a convention of the American College of Cardiology. But he called the FDA and was told they didn't buy the results; the drugs were dangerous. He included that, but the story still gave the company a good "bounce" in the news cycle.

Now here's the scoop. When the study's author sent it to The New England Journal of Medicine, which the company's research director hoped would publish it, the Journal provisionally rejected it. Its editor sent a letter to the researcher, Dr. Neil Weissman, asking him to recalculate his results using the methodology suggested by the Journal's medical reviewers. When he did that, the results were quite different. There was a significant link between heart-valve disease and the drug Redux.

That recalculated study was finally published by the Journal, along with two others finding the same links with heart damage, six months later. But this time, the stories in The New York Times and USA Today didn't get the same placement. No one noticed that in the one study's case, the researcher was the same Weissman who, only six months earlier, had dismissed heart-valve problems.

Most press releases acknowledge drug company funding and reporters include that. …

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