Those of you in the mood for a serious read might want to check out an article in the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry about the way in which many drug companies use their marketing muscle to mislead physicians and consumers about the safety and effectiveness of their products.

This is not news, of course. In recent years, the mainstream media and blogs like this one have spotlighted specific examples where drug companies have achieved blockbuster profits through such smarmy tactics as ghostwriting, the suppression of negative findings, the publication of journal articles that report only positive findings, and paying prominent physicians to convince their peers of the drugs’ benefits. Indeed, the illicit marketing campaigns that antidepressant makers like Pfizer, Eli Lilly and GlaxoSmithKline developed to make drugs like Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft look safer and more effective than they really were are the subject of several books, including Side Effects.

What’s worthwhile about the article in Bioethical Inquiry is that it makes very clear how widespread this practice of “marketing-based medicine” is and how unreliable our so-called “gold standard” of medical research — randomized clinical trials — really is. In too many cases, drug companies, which fund these trials and cherrypick the researchers whose names appear on them, not only ghostwrite the results to hide negative data and overstate the positive. But they also make sure that any truly negative trials never see the light of day. And then once the misleading results are published in supposedly reputable journals, the drug companies use prominent physicians (on their payroll) to market the hell out of them.

In their roundup, the authors, Glen Spielmans and Peter Parry, show how all this worked — not only with the antidepressant campaigns but also in the way that Eli Lilly and AstraZeneca went about promoting their antipsychotic drugs, Zyprexa and Seroquel and suppressed the drugs’ negative side effects to increase market share.

Spielmans and Parry suggest an interesting, if radical, solution: that journals should cease publication of clinical trials, since the much-vaunted process of peer review doesn’t seem very effective in weeding out erroneous trial results. Instead, they suggest that trial results could be published in some form of online registry, and that journal articles could focus on the validity of these trial results. Of course, this would deprive the journals of a major source of revenue: reprints of positive trial results (which the drug companies use in their marketing blitzes), as well as lucrative advertising revenue. So don’t look for this kind of systematic reform any time soon.

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